Civil disobedience refers to the willful challenge and disruption of law or the orderly flow and process of daily social activity. The intent of such action is to foster change in perceived unjust, immoral, or unethical government policies, mandates, or procedures. Civil disobedience is usually a nonviolent but officially discredited means to resolve citizen grievance. These grievances are generally politically based issues that a segment of the population considers unjust and in which the government is viewed as resisting a suitable resolution.
There are several different methods of civil disobedience that are not criminal by statute, but are nonetheless disruptive. Public speeches, public statements, letters of opposition, petitions, and public declarations are all formal statements that openly deliver an opposing plea. Similar acts such as group representations, symbolic public acts, pressure on individuals, processions, public assemblies, action by consumers, noncooperation with social events, strikes, and rejection of authority are only a few of the equally effective noncriminal tactics available to motivated citizens.
The use of noncooperation and civil disobedience has been widely studied by political philosophers and theorists. Primary questions at the root of civil disobedience are: How sacred is the law of the state, and what are the limits of the authority government can assert over its citizens; also, do citizens have a responsibility to obey bad laws? The fundamental debate is whether government should be responsive to the desires of the people or if the people should absolutely obey the directives of government without challenge.
Two universal truths exist regarding government in civilized countries. The first is whether the creation of laws by government should exist for the welfare of the people. The second is to sustain civility; government is an imperfect but necessary condition. The essential component for a country to remain orderly is citizen respect for the law and the recognition of the authority of some lawmaking body. Each citizen must see himself of herself as a member of the community, and as such, each member has an obligation to respect and obey the law. Certainly as important is the belief that if laws are in place on the behalf and interest of all citizens, then it is the responsibility of the citizens to reshape untenable laws. However, most changes are usually conducted willingly by the government, either by the process of internal or external review. Consequently, when citizens take it upon themselves to violate certain laws, not out of either convenience or self-interest, but rather the larger calling of an ethical or moral good, then their willful disobedience becomes an instrument of change. Any violation of law places offenders under the assessing scrutiny of the justice system, a potential recipient of punishment. Usually those who deliberately commit civil disobedience are prepared for the anticipated judicial response with a defense strategy. An often essential component of the strategy is their arrest and punishment, which draws wider attention and endorsement for their cause. Ideally, others will become polarized and inspired to disobey as an act of both protest and support. As the number of disobedient citizens grows and the impact of their actions spirals into greater social disruption and the corresponding cost to the government increases to intolerable levels, alternatives and compromises will begin to look more attractive to those in power.
Civil disobedience has other qualities that distinguish it from typical criminal behavior. An act of civil disobedience that breaks the law is, of course, as criminal as promoting or to conspire to commit a crime. Those who commit acts of civil disobedience may claim (and often do) a compelling moral duty as citizens. This claim is especially valid in a democratic system, where citizen participation in lawmaking is a cornerstone of the government ideal. When civil disobedience is employed to provoke change, the defense used is that the wrongful act committed is less harmful than the existence of unjust law and should mitigate the criminal charge. This argument has a greater validity if the government has been aware of the existing injustice, that it has had the opportunity to end the harm, and has failed to act or to act adequately.
Another quality of civil disobedience is that it is a public act. The citizen, in full comprehension of committing a punishable offense, acts in the public service in a clear and open protest and defiance to the government. The disobedience loses its value and message if conducted in secret or covertly, as in the example of one who paints seditious statements of protest on government buildings under the cover of night. In this situation, no matter how well intended, the act takes on the status of simple criminal mischief or vandalism, and the perpetrator, identified or not, assumes the role of a common criminal. The achievement of such public behavior is sometimes hailed as a means for acquiring personal notoriety, self-acclaim, or attention seeking. To some extent, this is true. The actor seeks attention, however, only to bring the illuminating spotlight of public review to the cause they champion. Ultimately, the individuals become synonymous with their cause, and the issue at hand receives greater review, particularly as the transgressors move through the various stages of the legal system.
Another characteristic of civil disobedience as an instrument of change is that the lawbreaking act must be a nonviolent act. Violence and inflicting injury are incompatible with the concept of civil obedience as a means of fostering change. In fact, any interference with the civil liberties of others is unacceptable with this mode of citizen political action because it obscures the message or purpose of the disobedience. Furthermore, an act of violence or injury attaches a distinctly negative sentiment to the political issue or cause. Such a sentiment is counterproductive because it acts to disperse rather than unite citizens in an act of forced change. At the heart of civil disobedience is the desire to inspire the righteous indignation of the complacent citizenry and to incite action.
Another trait of civil disobedience that separates it from most other forms of citizen action to promote change is that while civil disobedience is an expression of disobedience to the law, it also is at the same moment fidelity to the law. It is the fidelity that serves as a message from the minority to the majority of the population that their act is truly political, and separates their act of lawbreaking from mean-spirited aggression. By avoiding violence, the disobedient citizens exhibit a moral foundation and establish themselves as legitimate citizens provoking change, rather than a disorderly and unfocused band of troublemakers.
The last distinguishing trait of civil disobedience is that unlike crime, it has a place and function in civilized societies. This is especially true in countries that embrace democratic principles as the foundation of their government. In nations such as monarchies and totalitarian states, the citizens may plead their cause; however, they cannot disobey if their request is denied because to do so is an act of rebellion against the legitimate authority. In this situation, the ruling authority may have decided unwisely, and the citizens do not have the right to correct the error. However, with a constitutional-based government, where the structure is founded on mutual cooperation of equals, an imposed injustice does not require absolute obedience. Just like free elections and an independent judiciary, civil disobedience, though often illegal, when employed with proper judgment and limitations serves to maintain fair-spirited societies. While remaining faithful to the intent of law in a free democratic society, restrained nonviolent civil disobedience provides stability through a social/political outlet for dissent, challenge, and public voice.
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