The name of this blog, Rainbow Juice, is intentional.
The rainbow signifies unity from diversity. It is holistic. The arch suggests the idea of looking at the over-arching concepts: the big picture. To create a rainbow requires air, fire (the sun) and water (raindrops) and us to see it from the earth.
Juice suggests an extract; hence rainbow juice is extracting the elements from the rainbow, translating them and making them accessible to us. Juice also refreshes us and here it symbolises our nutritional quest for understanding, compassion and enlightenment.

Wednesday 22 July 2015

7 Myths About Civil Disobedience

Some of the world’s most revered social justice campaigners have been advocates of Civil Disobedience.  Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Vaclav Havel, Emmeline Pankhurst, Henry David Thoreau, Lech Walesa: all of them practised civil disobedience.  Yet civil disobedience remains largely misunderstood within the general population.  Even within social justice and other movements myths abound.  Here are just seven of those myths.

1. Civil Disobedience is unlawful.  Civil disobedience in and of itself is not unlawful.  Those practising civil disobedience may be charged with offences (eg disturbing the peace, trespass, damaging property etc) but civil disobedience is not a crime.  Indeed, some of the world’s most influential proponents of legal systems note that disobedience may be necessary in order to propel a government or other agency towards socially just policies.

2. Civil disobedience activists disregard the law.  Au contraire.  Oftentimes those undertaking a civil disobedience action are well aware of the law and the consequences of breaking it.  The difference between a civil disobedience activist and a criminal is that the former acknowledges that by their act they are willing to be charged and may be jailed as a result.  The latter does not.

3. Civil Disobedience should be a “last resort” action.  The obvious difficulty with this myth is defining the point at which all other possibilities have been exhausted.  For instance, can it be claimed that the Women’ Suffragist Movement had exhausted all legal channels open to them before they chained themselves to the fences around Parliament?  Yet, few would now claim that their actions were unwarranted. 

The argument that civil disobedience should be a “last resort” action can mean prolonging injustice, environmental destruction or repression.  Martin Luther King said it best with his pithy dictum that “justice delayed is justice denied.”

4. Civil Disobedience is divisive.  Civil disobedience is no more divisive than are the issues for which civil disobedience activists undertake their actions, indeed, often less so.  For example, American society, especially in the south, was divisive long before Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Stokely Carmichael and others initiated the Civil Rights Movement.

5. Civil Disobedience is violent.  Civil disobedience can take on violent forms, that is true.  However, civil disobedience is more often associated with non-violent forms of protest.  So much so that often the two terms, Non Violent Action and Civil Disobedience, are seen as interchangeable.  Social activists have moved away from the motto that “the ends justifies the mean,”  which held sway in many activists minds up until the latter half of last century.  Activists moved towards an understanding that means and ends had to be in harmony.  Beyond that, many now recognise that means are ends and vice versa.  Hence, civil disobedience activists appreciate that if it is a world of peace, justice, fairness and equity that they desire, then it is these same qualities that they must display in their actions to achieve it.

6. Civil Disobedience is undemocratic.  The role of civil disobedience within  democratic societies has been thoroughly analysed and theorised about.  Thoreau for example, noted that a government only exists because of the power delegated to it by free individuals.  Therefore, he claimed, free individuals can decide to stand aside from the law.1  Martin Luther King suggested that if the channels of change, though open in theory, are closed or obstructed then civil disobedience becomes necessary.

Democratic theory is underpinned by the notion of the “social contract” whereby citizens tacitly consent to the law by being residents of the State.  Consequently, according to this myth, civil disobedience is undemocratic because it’s adherents reject the “social contract.”  (This argument is addressed in 2 above.)  Furthermore, the myth assumes that the State always and continuously upholds it’s side of the contract.  It doesn’t!

7. Civil Disobedience encourages lawlessness.  Aside from the fact that this myth has no empirical evidence to support it, it can be argued that obedience to some laws and governmental actions would cause more harm than would disobedience.  Many civil disobedience activists understand the implications of breaking the law and do not attempt to “get away with” breaking the law, but rather, deliberately face the consequences.  Gandhi, for instance, took upon himself the brutality of the police, and he accepted being arrested and punished.

Other theorists note that, rather than encouraging lawlessness, civil disobedience can actually help stabilise a society by “nudging (it) closer to it’s shared vision of justice.”1

Civil disobedience is not for every social justice advocate, community development worker or environmental campaigner.  However, civil disobedience should not be dismissed.  It is a valid, useful and tactical tool in the struggle for a peaceful, just and sustainable world.

1. Peter Suber, Civil Disobedience, in Philosophy of Law: An Encyclopedia, (edited by Christopher Gray), Garland Publishers, 1999.

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