Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Friday, October 18, 2019

On Civil Disobedience

I'm not going to link to a video sent in by a reader mostly because the comments are so stupid, but point taken. Blocking public transit as a protest against government inaction on climate change seems symbolically and tactically illogical. So when and why is civil disobedience morally justifiable? The question is inextricable from the practical utility of civil disobedience actions. Moral justification doesn't work for ineffective actions.

As a youth I worked for an organization that emphasized what we called direct action tactics, which were often though not necessarily technically illegal. So there are some important definitional distinctions. "Direct action" means political action that bypasses the official mechanisms of political participation, such as voting, giving money to candidates, lobbying, testifying before legislative committees, submitting public comments, writing letters to the editor, yadda yadda . . .

These methods generally favor people who are already disproportionately powerful. They require getting past the gatekeepers of the corporate media, having money, having the right connections, having "respectable" opinions. Direct action tactics, in contrast, are available to people who are disadvantaged in the system as it is.

Legal direct action tactics include demonstrations, boycotts, and strikes. I'll leave those aside for now. Civil disobedience requires violating the law. Some people will say immediately "That is always wrong." If you don't like the law, you can try to change it by legal means, but if people don't respect the law the consequences will be intolerable.

It's very easy to reduce that to the absurd. George Washington was a traitor who led an armed insurrection. That was for sure illegal and if the colonists had been defeated he would have been hung. Nevertheless you probably think the U.S. war of independence (it was not a revolution) was justifiable -- as was the Boston Tea Party which consisted of the destruction of someone's property. You might mention that to the next libertarian you see.

Harriet Tubman made a career of violating the law, and every slave who escaped with her help violated the law, as did everyone in the South or the North who helped them. Later, civil disobedience was a core tactic of the Freedom Movement. Rosa Parks violated the law. The students who sat in at the Woolworth's lunch counter violated the law. The Freedom Riders violated the law. The laws they violated in these cases were specifically ones they considered illegitimate, but later mass protests in which people blocked traffic or defied orders to disperse and were subjected to mass arrest were of a different character. They were intended to disrupt the business of cities, overfill the jails, and provoke a violent response from the authorities which made for bad optics both locally and internationally.

Why do people believe these violations of the law were morally justified? In some instances, the specific laws that were violated are considered so egregious that people have no moral obligation to obey them, or even a moral obligation to disobey. In other cases, the laws that were violated are not necessarily objectionable in themselves, but the moral imperative of changing other laws or conditions is great enough to outweigh the moral cost of disobeying them.

There isn't any formula or magic 8-ball that can tell you if this calculus applies in a specific situation. I would definitely say, however, that the looming global catastrophe of climate change, resource depletion and mass extinction is a moral imperative that outweighs obedience to a whole lot of laws. However, the disobedience has to be effective -- it has to advance the cause of government, corporate and collective action to address the emergency. That requires tactical smartness and a credible theory of why a specific action is going to benefit the cause. So I hope the good people of Extinction Rebellion will stay smart, and that they won't make a habit of blocking mass transit.

1 comment:

Don Quixote said...

All that's necessary to begin understanding the necessity of civil disobedience is to read MLK Jr's Letter from a Birmingham Jail ... unless, of course, you may be a racist who doesn't want to read the writings of a man with brown skin--in which case, you need even MORESO to read it and get your head out of your ass!