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Civil Disobedience

  Civil disobedience in general usage covers those forms of political protest against the state or régime which fall somewhere between physical force and constitutional opposition. The term was first articulated in Henry David Thoreau\'s essay ‘On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’ (1849), which justified refusal to pay taxes to a government that permitted slavery, and declared that ‘the only obligation I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right’. However, the forms of action associated with civil disobedience have a longer history than Thoreau. Civil disobedience in the strictest form means that dissidents break the law (to protest its injustice or absurdity) but do not hide from or resist arrest by the authorities. Sometimes civil disobedience can be the prelude to revolutionary struggle against the state; and sometimes organizations may deploy a mixture of insurrectionary acts and acts of civil disobedience. Naturally civil disobedience stands little chance of success against a determined authoritarian or imperial régime, whereas in a democratic milieu it can be used to transform public opinion. In our century the non-violent mass-mobilizations of Mahatma Gandhi in South Africa and India, and of Martin Luther King in the US, are examples of the successful deployment of civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is meant to assist one or more of the following goals: (1) publicizing the cause of the movement; (2) emphasizing the illegitimacy of the law and the system which produces it; and (3) provoking acts of repression which undermine the legitimacy of the régime and, by contrast, portray the activists in a more favourable light. The early activities of the American and Northern Ireland civil rights demonstrators in the 1960s illustrate these primary functions. For example, the occupation by blacks of ‘whites-only’ lunch counters in Oklahoma and North Carolina provoked extensive and sensational media coverage, emphasized the absurdity of the racist laws segregating public amenities; and exposed the repressive nature of the local white police.

Political philosophers dispute the morality of civil disobedience, usually in their discussions of political obligation. Some argue that civil disobedience is only appropriate in an unjust state, and where all other means of remedy have been exhausted; others maintain that its use is a tactical rather than a fundamental issue; while conservatives reject it altogether because they are committed to the preservation of the authority of ‘the powers that be’. BO\'L

Further reading H. Bedau, Civil Disobedience in Focus; , C. Villa-Vincencio, Civil Disobedience and Beyond: Law, Resistance and Religion in South Africa.



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