“When injustice becomes law, rebellion becomes duty.” Thomas Jefferson
“When one realises that to obey unjust laws is contrary to the dignity of humanity, no tyranny can enslave.” Gandhi
WHAT IS CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE?
Civil disobedience is a public practice – a nonviolent, conscious and political challenge to a law or order of authority which is considered unjust to the concerned civil society. The challenge attempts to invalidate the law, inaugurating a new order in its place, and in which the social and civil rights formally denied are now recognised. In many contemporary nation states, forms of political expression are limited to 4-year voting cycles and institutional channels that are without direct mechanisms for participation and consultation. In such circumstances, civil disobedience becomes an essential tool to expose and express the rejection of unjust policies.
- Civil disobedience is exercised by aware individuals who are committed to the society in which they operate. They are (what Hannah Arendt termed) qualitatively significant minorities – active as critics of certain political decisions that have made their way into law. The effort made by those who exercise civil disobedience is of an intense nature that goes beyond the traditional formation and execution of political will. Citizens who practice civil disobedience have an ability to imagine a better social order and in their hands civil disobedience becomes a useful and necessary procedure.
- The behaviour of these people is not motivated by selfishness, but by the desire to objectively bring to pass proposals that improve life in society. However, this does not ignore the fact that sometimes personal or corporate interests can coincide with the main focus. The implication is rather that it would be impossible to consolidate a movement of civil disobedience that is limited to the furthering of narrow interests.
- Citizens who practice civil disobedience feel the acute coalescence of thought and action. More than theoretical, their practice is felt as one of civic duty, a demand that comes to them from convictions with an objective and constructive value.
- The practice of civil disobedience must be public – in its open operations, its practitioners aim to convince more and more citizens about the justice of their demands.
- In order to bring about social change, civil disobedience necessitates a violation of legal standards within in a democratic system that may be morally and legally reprehensible – standards that by their nature are presented as valid and are strongly enforced. Civil disobedience not only violates these legal standards, but strives to bring about policy change, and so must operate outside of the ordinary channels which sustain the political system.
HISTORIC BACKGROUND OF CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
In the mid nineteenth century, the US went to war with Mexico. Writer and environmentalist Henry David Thoreau was arrested and imprisoned by the State of Massachusetts in 1846 for failure to pay his poll tax over a six year period. His refusal to pay was based on his belief that the government was wrong to support a military conflict with Mexico. He hoped to use his tax avoidance and jail time to raise awareness about the war as well as the wider issue of slavery – and to encourage others to protest in the same way.
Thoreau’s prison stint inspired the essay “Civil Disobedience”, a text which went on to have a profound impact on later activists. At the height of the Irish Land War in 1880, encouraged by Charles Stewart Parnell’s Land League, tenants in Co Mayo shunned their landlord’s agent Captain Boycott when he refused to reduce their inflated rents. Boycott was ostracised by the entire community, and his name was quickly absorbed into the language as a concept for passive protest. Gandhi’s 1930 Salt March, in which he led tens of thousands of followers to disregard the British salt monopoly and harvest their own salt, was another nonviolent protest to resist an unjust policy. In 1956, in the wake of Rosa Park’s refusal to move to the back of the bus in Alabama, the 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system by the black community brought an end to segregation on public buses.
From the dumping of tea into the sea by 200 patriots during the Boston Tea Party in 1773, to the refusal of 18 million citizens of the United Kingdom to pay their Poll Tax in the early 1990s, historic acts of civil disobedience have denied unjust laws collectively, publicly, peacefully.
8 Cases of Disobedience: the Boston Tea Party (1773), Henry David Thoreau (1846), Irish Land League Boycott (19th century), The Salt March (1930), Montgomery Bus Boycott (1955), Anti Poll Tax Protest (1989), Crickhowell: The Fair Tax Town (2015) and FairCoop (2006-2008).
The social contract is a philosophical and political concept that links an individual to a social system. This contract is not really a contract, because the individual has never been given the legal option of choosing not to sign. ‘Integral disobedience’ involves breaking this imagined social contract between an individual and the state or territory in which they live, in order to make a new social contract with a community in which the individual is actually integrated.