Would America be a British colony if not for civil disobedience? What harm does civil disobedience bring with it?
Is civil disobedience moral or immoral, and why? These are pertinent questions that reflect upon the heart of America.
From colonial times to the eighteen-hundreds to today, civil disobedience is an American mindset that has transcended time.
Rosa Parks refused to vacate her seat for a white; Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his taxes in protest of the Mexican-American War; Martin Luther King, Jr. led sit-ins and then-illegal marches across the Deep South; labor unions ignored anti-trust laws; Harriet Tubman helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad.
Now, it can be argued that these actions, all of which to varying degrees occurred in violation of federal or state law, effected positive change: the end to segregation, the abolition of slavery, the end of child labor, etc. But there is a fine line between civil disobedience and plausible, probable anarchy.
Civil disobedience undermines the law. As Trey Gowdy, House Representative from South Carolina, said, “The law is a powerful equalizer: it’s what makes the poorest man and the richest man drive the same speed limit.” When noncompliance with court orders and laws becomes the status quo, how will the law remain “a powerful equalizer?”
We have to realize that when United States citizens – our family, friends, neighbors – begin to disobey the law, they undermine the democratic process and social order.
Susan Tiefenbrun, Associate Professor of Law at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego, said:
“There is much opposition to civil disobedience. For the past two thousand years, philosophers have asked themselves whether one has an obligation to obey a law that is unjust. Scholars have grounded an obligation to obey unjust laws in six different legal theories. [These include] the duty to obey the law out of gratitude to an existing legal system (i.e. Socrates and Plato’s Crito); the duty to obey the law because of the individual’s contractual agreement or consent to obey (i.e. John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau); the duty to obey because of the negative consequences of disobedience; the duty to obey out of fairness; the duty to obey in order to support just institutions (i.e. H.L.A. Hart and John Rawl’s theory), and the duty to obey in order to support your community (i.e. Ronald Dworkin’s theory).”
Fairness, just institutions, gratitude to an existing legal system, negative consequences.
How can one overlook any of these factors and arrive at the conclusion that one’s actions are “virtuous?”
As Americans, we can vote for representatives, sue in court, petition for redress, lobby our Congress, and write to government agencies and officials. These legal-judicial avenues are open to the vast majority of Americans, which is why civil disobedience is so tricky.
There are a multitude of legal ways to address grievances. A perfect example is Brown v. Board of Education, a decision that mandated the end to segregation in public schools across the country, a decision rendered within existing legal framework.
But what does one do when all legal-judicial avenues have been exhausted? Does one just comply with what one considers unjust?
Well, here is where the problem therein lies: morality is subjective. I find abortion abhorrent. Someone else finds the violation of a woman’s right to choose a travesty. I believe the death penalty is just. Someone else thinks it to be cruel and unusual.
Circumventing the law because of personal, subjective righteousness endangers the strength of the republic and the communal fabric that holds it together.
Fredrik Bendz, Professor of Philosophy at Uppsala University, said:
“Disobedience is a forceful way of having society do things your way. Even a small group of citizens can, with only a little effort, cause great destruction on the infrastructure of a country. The problem with this is that a small terror group without any mandate from the rest of the population may consider themselves to be the righteous ones. Some Anarchists even think that they are acting in the best interest of society, even though the people sympathize neither with their ends nor their means.”
Civil disobedience also leads to undesired, severe economic effects. Protestors of the Blacks Lives Matter movement have blocked highways and disrupted businesses around the country, causing store owners, shoppers, trucks, cars, and municipal/emergency services to be stuck in the chaos, thus resulting in financial losses and loss of productivity.
Furthermore, civil disobedience leads to outright destruction when a minority of protestors turn violent. We saw this in Ferguson, Missouri when riots occurred in conjunction with protests. 17 businesses were damaged to the point that they were deemed unsafe for use following the riots. Total damages amounted to $4.6 million.
“The leaders in the United States sought to establish a balance between the right to dissent and the need to maintain a stable government. The right to revolution and rebellion became obsolete in this climate, and the right to resistance needed careful limitations.”
– Susan Tiefenbrun, reflecting on the violent and chaotic French Revolution and its effect on American governance
Many people look back to our colonial past and use it as an example of civil disobedience: the Boston Tea Party, the refusal to pay taxes, the refusal to enforce trading embargoes, etc. However, these actions were taken before the Constitution was created and ratified. These actions were taken in response to a government far more severe. The same men who perpetrated these acts of disobedience created a document that is our foundation today: they addressed all of their grievances through the creation of a balanced, separated government.
The founders created the necessary paths for change in a legal framework that, beforehand, did not exist. Moreover, post-ratification, the vast majority of Americans, and even the nation’s most radical founders, found a need for compliance and obedience:
“Upon the founding of the United States of America as one nation, even the radical Bostonian, Samuel Adams, once the most vocal proponent of resistance and revolution, revised his views about the right to revolt. He now saw the inherent dangers of too much resistance leading to a breakdown of the rule of law in society.”
If the rule of law is jeopardized by a minority of citizens, that minority has to realize that the law-abiding majority will elect officials far more severe in law enforcement to counteract an apparent, pervasive lawlessness. Tyranny is always just over the horizon, so remember, the next time you disobey a law to force change, you may have just ensured its permanence.