what civil disobedience definition

Civil Disobedience Definition

Last modified on 20thFebruary 2020

What is civil disobedience? When did this concept appear? What are some known examples of civil disobedience? Why has civil disobedience been on the rise throughout recent years?

Civil Disobedience Definition: What Is Civil Disobedience?

Civil disobedience can be defined as refusing to obey a law, a regulation or a power judged unjust in a peaceful manner. Civil disobedience is, therefore, a form of resistance without violence.

The authorship of the term civil disobedience is generally attributed to the American philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who conceptualized it in an essay with the same name – Civil Disobedience – published in 1849. The work of Thoreau follows his refusal to pay a tax intended to finance a war against Mexico which got him a night in prison.

The concept of civil disobedience was clarified in a more contemporary way by the philosopher John Rawls in The Theory of Justice (1971). He defines civil disobedience as “a public, non-violent act, decided in conscience, but political, contrary to the law and most often accomplished to bring about a change in the law or in government policy. In doing so, we are addressing the sense of justice of the majority of the community and declaring that, according to a well-thought-out opinion, the principles of social cooperation between free and equal beings are not currently respected ”.

The Six Characteristic Elements Of Civil Disobedience

A civil disobedience action is usually characterized by six elements:

  • 1 – The first element of civil disobedience is that an offense must be committed consciously and intentionally A distinction can then be made between direct civil disobedience, which requires the action carried out directly to violate a law (as with GMO reapers) and indirect civil disobedience when the norm violated is not the one being challenged (as is the case for sit-ins in public areas because traffic regulations are not the ones being targeted by the action)
  • 2 -The second element is that civil disobedience must be a public act. Performing a public act gives it symbolic value and allows reaching a widespread with the goal of raising public awareness of the case
  • 3 – The third element of civil disobedience is that the action must be carried out collectively
  • 4 – The fourth element is that a civil disobedience act must be done using peaceful methods
  • 5 -The fifth element is that the action must be carried out while accepting the eventualities of a sanction.
  • 6 – Finally, the last element and undoubtedly the most important, is that the action carried out must urge to “higher principles” to justify the violation of a norm. It is the very own existence of these higher principles that give a certain (at least moral) legitimacy to action

Civil Disobedience: A Rediscovered Tool To Fight Climate Change

In recent years, the civil disobedience movement has gained momentum, but from a new perspective. Indeed, while civil disobedience in the twentieth century was essentially focused on the struggle for equal rights, more and more, it is put to the service of a new cause: the defense of the environment. This new boom in civil disobedience regarding ecological causes began with actions like the one from Greenpeace against nuclear power in the 1970s or the GMO reapers led by José Bové in the 2000s.

But while this type of action used to come along with ambivalent reactions from the public opinion, the most recent actions brought a different consensus. For instance, movements Extinction Rebellion or Fridays For Future (the school strikes for climate) have been growing as more people participate in their civil disobedience actions.

Civil Disobedience Today

In the end, civil disobedience works as a way of publicly and peacefully showing disagreement. Nowadays, it is mostly focused on one of the most concerning risks the world is facing over the next years – its sustainability due to climate change.

Unlike previous civil disobedience movements, this one is innovative in the sense it has reached international consensus (the causes supported are backed up by science) and makes use of new propaganda techniques related to the internet and social networks. Due to the urgency of the problem, civil disobedience movements and actions are likely to grow for as long as strong actions to prevent climate change and protect the environment aren’t put in place at a global level.

Civil Disobedience: Some Known Historical Examples

Throughout history, many acts that have taken place can be described as civil disobedience. We can indeed consider that the acts at the origin of civil disobedience came from Ancient Greece. Hence, the examples of civil disobedience are often anchored in a perspective of spiritual disobedience when Christians refuse to comply with the laws of men in the name of the divine law. However, the history of civil disobedience as it is today has been essentially built by following the peaceful resistance movements of two men: Gandhi and Martin Luther King.

The Spirit Of Civil Disobedience In Ancient Greece: Antigone

The best-known example of disobedience to the arbitrariness of power during Greek Antiquity is Antigone – a heroine of Sophocles’ 439 BC novel.

This young woman was forbidden by the king of Thebes Creon to give a decent burial to her brother Polynice, who died after fighting against the city. Antigone went against the “unwritten and eternal laws of the Gods ” and buried her brother with soldiers staring at her. This courageous act has remained famous as an example of civil disobedience to abuses of state power.

Spiritual Disobedience Of Christians Choosing The Divine Law Over The Law Of Men

Ever since its origin, Christianity has drawn a distinction between the law of men and the law of God and his commandments. Evidence of this is the famous saying “Render to Caesar what is to Caesar and to God what belongs to God ”(Matthew, 22-15-21).

Among the Christian beliefs that are opposed to Roman laws was the idea of not killing – seen by the first Christians as a prohibition to make war. This is how some began refusing to fight, to carry out their military service or to bear arms – an opposition that cost them their lives.

Later, in the Middle Ages, the theologian Thomas Aquinas went so far as to legitimize disobedience to human laws by asserting that “it is better to obey God than men ” (Acts 5, 29). Considering that the divine law is a natural law, based on universal and immutable principles and contrary to the laws of society, it is up to human laws to submit to this natural law. Otherwise, for Thomas Aquinas, if a text deviates from this eternal law, it becomes unfair and it is therefore legitimate of not being respected.

Gandhi’s Salt Market

The first contemporary movement of civil disobedience known was started by the Indian lawyer Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), theorist of satyāgraha, who resisted oppression by using civil disobedience.

Following his legal studies in Great Britain, Gandhi developed several actions advocating for human dignity and social justice in favor of the civil rights of the Indian community (at the time India was under British colonial rules).

In September 1906, in Johannesburg, South Africa, he gathered an assembly of 3000 people to create an oath of disobedience, which earned him two stays in prison the following year. He discovered during his second stay in prison the writings of Thoreau and further developed the idea of ​​civil disobedience, which he implemented first in South Africa, against apartheid, and then in India, against British domination and independence of the country.

It was in favor of the independence of India that he then organized one of his most famous civil disobedience actions: the salt march in 1930. At the time, the British government had indeed established a state monopoly on salt, prohibiting Indians from harvesting and distributing it, and imposing a tax on its consumption – even for the poorest.

As a response, Gandhi organized a walk of 386km when on April 6, 1930, he walked towards the edge of the Indian Ocean. When he reached the ocean level, he collected a little salt in his hands. This purely symbolic gesture was repeated by several thousand supporters who followed him. After this, the British army sent nearly 60,000 Indians in prison, including Gandhi, who received a nine-month sentence.

However, faced with the lack of resistance from the Indians during the arrests and the impossibility of ending the movement, the British government finally gave up: the prisoners were freed and Indians were authorized to harvest the salt themselves.

The Boycott of Martin Luther King’s Montgomery Buses

Martin Luther King (1929-1968) was an African-American Baptist pastor famous for his nonviolent efforts advocating for the civil rights of black citizens in the United States. His example and achievements got him a Peace Nobel Prize in 1964.

Among his many actions in favor of the civil rights of black Americans, one of the most famous using civil disobedience was the boycott of Montgomery buses in 1955. At the time, racial segregation was widespread in public transport in the United States. In the city of Montgomery, a regulation made it very clear that buses should be divided into several parts. At the front, a section of ten seats was reserved for whites; at the back, ten places were reserved for blacks, while the places in the middle were free. However, when blacks were seated in this middle space and whites entered the bus, if there were not enough seats left, they had to give it to them.

On 1 st December 1955, a black woman, Rosa Parks sat in the middle part, refused to give way when four whites boarded the bus. The driver, furious, then informed the police who had her imprisoned. The following night, Martin Luther King, then a little-known young pastor, brought together leaders of the African-American community to discuss actions to be taken against this settlement, advocating non-violence and civil disobedience. A general boycott of buses by the African American community followed. On the other hand, the whites reacted with violent acts, including damaging the home of Martin Luther King, who was also a victim of physical violence to which he did not respond. Despite all the complexities, the movement had a good end: in November 1956, the Supreme Court declared that segregation on the buses violated the U.S. Constitution, which put an end to the boycott the next day.

[Image credits to protest on Shutterstock]

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