Civil disobedience versus quiet non-compliance

by Milan on March 18, 2011

in Activism, Civil disobedience, Ethics

When faced with a law they believe to be unjust, every individual has a choice to make. They can comply with the law, either for practical or moral reasons. In the first case, they comply to avoid the difficulty and punishment that could be associated with breaking the law. In the second case, they obey the law because they feel morally obliged to obey laws, even when they believe them to be unjust. That could be because they doubt their own judgment, or because they think it is necessary to have an orderly society.

Among those who choose not to obey, there is a second choice between doing so overtly and acting covertly. For example, a soldier who is ordered to fire on civilians could choose to deliberately miss, firing near them but not at them. Alternatively, the soldier could openly refuse to obey the order at all.

When it comes to protests, you are being overt from the outset. As such, when protestors are given a legal order to desist, their only choice is compliance or overt violation of the law. Overt violation of the law is one of the strongest affirmations of a moral belief a person can make. They are saying, at the very least, that they are prepared to take responsibility for their actions within the legal system. At the same time, such civil disobedience is a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the state.

No wonder, then, that the state tends to respond forcefully – even violently – to such assertions. The person engaging in civil disobedience is asserting that their own moral code takes precedence over the laws of the land, and that it is important to assert that viewpoint, even in the face of personal danger.

Just being brave doesn’t make a person correct, however. Many people throughout history have put their freedom and lives on the line in defence of viewpoints that we now know to be based on factual errors, or which most people would now consider to be extremely morally dubious. That being said, civil disobedience is an unusually honest and direct form of participation in public policy discussion. It obliges the individual to take a stand from which they cannot retreat. In so doing, it challenges other members within the society to evaluate the basis for their own moral beliefs, and their own obedience to the law in question.

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{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Nick Bentley March 18, 2011 at 2:59 pm

While I agree that civil disobedience can be a powerful tool for change, I have doubts about whether it’s appropriate in the fight against coal, and climate change more generally. My doubt has to do with the specific kinds of laws we’re fighting, as well as the difficulty of avoiding hypocrisy. It might be a bit long to post here, so I’ll refer you to a piece I wrote on the topic here:

Tristan March 19, 2011 at 8:10 am

Non-violent resistance (as opposed to quiet non-compliance) should be understand to include a wide variety of activities, from boycott and divestment campaigns to strikes to general strikes – just talking about protests is too narrow. It’s crucial to recognize that non-violent resistance is often essentially a kind of social activity, something people do together rather than as individuals. But, other than, I think this is right on.

Milan March 19, 2011 at 1:32 pm

Civil disobedience is a kind of non-violent resistance, but it is a pretty narrow subset. As I understand it, the term only applies when you are openly and intentionally breaking the law in order to make a political point.

There can also be ambiguities when you think a law is unconstitutional. For instance, if you live in a country that protects the right to free speech in the constitution, but then tries to restrict it with lesser laws.

If you violate the lesser laws while believing yourself protected by the constitution, are you really engaging in civil disobedience?

In any case, such questions are rather abstract. A more important question is whether civil disobedience can help us deal with climate change. In several ways, I think it can.

Milan March 19, 2011 at 1:40 pm

An interesting speech on civil disobedience: “But if Not

Tristan March 21, 2011 at 9:13 am

Civil disobedience is just a tactic, if it is not part of a popular and committed movement, it won’t do anything. There are popular and committed movements fighting for climate justice and carbon neutrality, but you don’t seem to support them because their agendas connect the protection of the climate with the protection of social goods. Which seems obvious enough to me, since the only reason we care about the climate is that it is necessary for human flourishing.

Milan March 22, 2011 at 10:23 pm

Civil disobedience is just a tactic, if it is not part of a popular and committed movement, it won’t do anything.

One reason why civil disobedience is powerful is because it can affect the thinking of people outside the hard core of any particular movement. One reason why the Rosa Parks story was so influential is precisely because of that. She wasn’t refusing a lawful order because she was part of a wider movement (though a movement did adopt her as an icon). She refused it because it clashed with her personal sense of what was right.

Antonia March 28, 2011 at 1:28 pm
Antonia March 28, 2011 at 1:37 pm

The contrasting civil disobedience actions and more violent protestsacross the Middle East and North Africa in the last few months will eventually make for interesting studies into where the boundaries lie.

It is however, not always the case that civil disobedience is ‘a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the state’ as it can apply to regional bylaws or be focused on legislation which is of questionable validity under the state’s own law-making rules.

Milan March 28, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Fair enough. It is a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the body that created the law that is being protested.

. May 25, 2011 at 6:44 pm


Freedoms and loyalties
April 5, 2011

. July 20, 2011 at 9:42 pm

Climatemama: “Why I am risking arrest to stop the tar sands pipeline”

Harriet is a New Jersey mother of two who is making the trip to Washington D.C. this August to risk arrest to stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Also a native of Alberta, Canada, she recently returned from a tour of the tar sands mine inspired to take action to defend her children’s future.

. August 5, 2011 at 3:20 pm

Brian Haw
Brian Haw, peace campaigner, died on June 18th, aged 62

WHEN Brian Haw sat in his old canvas chair in front of his banner-hung tent in Parliament Square, people kept coming by. Tourists with their cameras. Teenagers drinking beer. Commuters on their way to work. Taxis, vans, bicycles. Bloody big black cars with lying politicians in them. Buses with passengers all on their phones or buried in their papers. Drivers who wound down the car window, not stopping, and shouted “Get a job!”

Wasn’t that nice. But he had a job. He had it for ten years in sun, rain, sleet, snow. Never left the square. And his job was this. Get the people to wake up. Get them to realise that the USA and the UK were killing babies. Hundreds were dying every day in this place called Iraq and this place called Afghanistan. He had their photographs on his wall of shame. Bloated, pathetic, missing limbs. Sanctions were killing them. Sanctions and bombs. And especially, check out depleted uranium munitions. That poison was everywhere, in the air, in the water, even between the grains of sand. There wasn’t a Hoover in the world big enough to suck up all that shit. And everyone was responsible. Everyone. Raping and pillaging and murdering the world. Just to get that stuff called oil. FOOD YES, BOMBS NO, his banners said. COLAT DAMAGE, NO. A GENOCIDE TOO FAR. STOP KILLING MY KIDS.

. September 6, 2011 at 3:40 pm

“If I had ever doubted the power of words, Judge Benson made their importance all too clear at my sentencing last month. When he sentenced me to two years in prison plus three years probation, he admitted my offense “wasn’t too bad.” The problem, Judge Benson insisted, was my “continuing trail of statements” and my lack of regret. Apparently, all he really wanted was an apology, and for that, two years in prison could have been avoided. In fact, Judge Benson said that had it not been for the political statements I made in public, I would have avoided prosecution entirely. As is generally the case with civil disobedience, it was extremely important to the government that I come before the majesty of the court with my head bowed and express regret. So important, in fact, that an apology with proper genuflection is currently fair trade for a couple years in prison. Perhaps that’s why most activist cases end in a plea bargain.”

. September 6, 2011 at 3:43 pm

” By its very nature, civil disobedience is an act whose message is that the government and its laws are not the sole voice of moral authority. It is a statement that we the citizens recognize a higher moral code to which the law is no longer aligned, and we invite our fellow citizens to recognize the difference. A government truly of the people, for the people, and by the people is not threatened by citizens issuing such a challenge. But government whose authority depends on an ignorant or apathetic citizenry is threatened by every act of open civil disobedience, no matter how small. To regain that tiny piece of authority, the government either has to respond to the activist’s demands, or get the activist to back down with a public statement of regret. Otherwise, those little challenges to the moral authority of government start to add up.”

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