The Varieties of Civil Disobedience

Friday, July 30, AD 2010

The 1849 essay “Resistance to Civil Government”, better known as “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience”, by Henry David Thoreau is one of the most influential writings of the 19th century. Written to expound Thoreau’s ideas on resistance to a U.S. government that at the time permitted slavery and was waging an unpopular war against Mexico, the essay inspired other famous activists, most notably Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, to espouse the notion of changing unjust laws and government policies through active but non-violent resistance.

In this media-driven age civil disobedience seems to have taken on yet another meaning. Today it most often refers to instances in which activists for a particular cause engage in public lawbreaking (usually trespassing or blocking access to public facilities) designed primarily to attract attention and/or provoke authorities into arresting them.

As a result we have actions such as PETA’s public displays of nudity and their attacks upon fur wearers; Greenpeace’s placement of banners in unauthorized locations; anti-war protesters trespassing upon, vandalizing or defacing military installations or missile sites; abortion clinic blockades; gay activists disrupting Catholic Masses; and pro-life activist Randall Terry’s entering the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last fall and tearing up a copy of the 2,000-page healthcare bill, all being characterized as “civil disobedience” in the tradition of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King.

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9 Responses to The Varieties of Civil Disobedience

  • Seems to me that category 3 is part and parcel with another facet of (apparently) the same malaise: doing a walk-a-thon, raising money from friends and neighbors for each mile you walk, for MS, or cancer, or spina bifida, or green rose dust syndrome. There is nothing, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING, that walking another mile has to do with the rightness or wrongness or worthiness of the cause. All it says is that I, personally believe in this enough to walk another mile. It calls attention to my personal attitude about the cause, not the inherent rightness of the cause.

    I am not quite sure that a public march along a set route has the same defects. The whole point of the march is, normally, to make people aware that many, many people take the cause seriously. But it doesn’t pay any attention to any individual thereof – it is only in collection that it matters at all.

  • I agree 100% with the thoughts expressed in the article – and would add this: that the proliferation of the third kind of protest and lawbreaking has made many of us calloused and skeptical of all forms of protest – seeing most as just another attention seeking group and not worthy of interest – and if there is no violence or some other “gimmick” at play the media could hardly care less –

  • Henry David Thoreau has always struck me as one of the most buffoonish and over-rated characters in American history. His aunt paying his taxes for him so his great tax protest lasted one night, his accidental setting of a fire that consumed 300 acres of Walden woodlands, Thoreau contracting the tuberculosis that would kill him as a result of a middle of the night excursion to count tree rings and the pacifist Thoreau writing a pamphlet in which he claimed that John Brown, a murderer, embezzler, cattle thief and congenital liar, was humane are only a few of the many episodes in his life that are worthy of a great satirical novel.

    I am usually adverse to breaking any law unless the consequences of obeying the law are dire. If one is content to live in society, one must observe the rules or anarchy results. When one must disobey the law one must also be willing to pay the price of disobedience. Of course this depends to a certain extent on the government. A freely elected government where basic human rights are protected, has I think a greater claim to observance of its laws than a tyranny that rules by force. However, even in a tyranny most laws: against stealing, murder, traffic laws, etc are a force for order and should be respected. A long train of abuses can bring into play the right of rebellion set forth in the Declaration of Independence, but such a right should never be invoked for light and transitory reasons. Even bad law should normally be put up with until adherence to the law is a greater offense from the standpoint of morality than adhering to it. Saint Thomas More is a good guide in this area:

  • Originally I was going to expound more on Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience, but upon actually reading his essay I found it to be rather confusing and of little help in defining what appropriate civil disobedience would be. It’s basically a lengthy rant on the evils of government and why Thoreau felt it necessary to demonstrate his lack of allegiance to it. So I just ran with my own thoughts on the topic.

    I note also that the third type of civil disobedience (deliberately trying to get arrested) seems to be more often associated with left-leaning causes like animal rights, pacifism, G8 summit protests, etc. Despite what the MSM says, I don’t believe we have seen much of this kind of action from the Tea Partiers. Pro-lifers like Randall Terry do it some of the time but I believe the majority of regular pro-life protesters who pray at abortion clinics, etc. don’t set out to get arrested.

  • It seems to me that a major purpose of Civil Disobedience, when it iis not simply refusing personal participation in a perceived or real injustice (#1), is to coerce someone in a position of authority to do something they would not do otherwise. Often the target is quite sincere in his belief (perhaps mistaken) that his actions are morally acceptable or even required to fulfill the trust that came with the authority.

    Coercing someone to do something that they believe is wrong is a violation of human dignity. It is sometimes necessary – as in coercing a thief not to practice his trade with the threat and actuality of jail. The Catechism in the sections on the 4th and 5th commandments as detailed discussions which are worth while reading.

    Yes, there are times when Civil Disobedience is necessary to stop an injustice. It is certainly preferable to armed rebellion which is permissible under extreme circumstances. It would seem to me that the test to use civil disobedience is the Classic Just War Doctrine, perhaps with a lower standard of evidence because of the less serious nature of Civil Disobedience. .

  • I wonder if we may not all be called upon to perform our little piece of active, civil disobedience by withholding our participation in systems in which nobody usually accomplishes all of an evil alone. To recall the examples of hiding slaves or perhaps priests in Elizabethan England, our society leans on technology and what I take to be the nearly infinite parcelling out of duties. Many offices, many participants are sometimes required to accomplish some evil. If the authorities are to arrest a priest for preaching the Church’s teaching on marriage or sexuality, there will be a judge somewhere in the mix, the judge will have a clerk, the clerk will work with a sheriff, the sheriff may well delegate the arrest to an under-sheriff, there is a garage where the squad cars are maintainted, there is a clerk in the sheriff’s office, and so on. Nobody will likely be called upon to accomplish such an arrest alone, but many will have their part in just following orders, just doing their job. It is in such work that we may be called upon to render civil disobedience: in dismissing the arrest warrant request, in misplacing the arrest warrant, in failing to fill the squad car with gas, in allowing the arrested priest to be bailed out. These are the sorts of things I can foresee being the arena of civil disobedience in the future. Somebody told me once, “God can change paperwork.” We may have to help Him change it.

  • refusal to be drafted into military service to fight in an unjust war; a parent’s refusal to obey custody laws that would cause his or her child to be placed in the hands of an abusive or dangerous ex-spouse; or a reporter refusing to obey a court order to reveal confidential sources, if there is serious reason to do so (for example, the source’s employment or personal safety may be endangered).

    Those all seem like examples of #1.

  • I classify them as #2 because the laws being broken are not inherently unjust or harmful in ALL cases, they just happen to be so in a particular case. Even a well-written child custody law, for example, can be misinterpreted or abused by a bad judge. The laws that allows contempt of court citations against jailed reporters also exist for good reason but SOMETIMES cause more harm than good. A military draft, I believe, can be justified in certain cases but there may be instances in which it is not.

    I think it is important to distinguish between laws that are inherently evil (like those allowing slavery or commanding worship of false gods) and those that are morally good or neutral most of the time but sometimes have a bad effect. The first kind of law deserves to be defied or disobeyed ALL the time, the second kind does not.

  • Rather late to the party — I’ve been behind in my reading lately — but I think this is a very good analysis and gets at the core of why so many have become jaded with “protest” as a means of political agitation.