Civil Disobedience

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Civil disobedience is a method of nonviolent protest that involves purposely and publicly breaking an unjust law. Without proper accountability, those who hold the reins of power often enact legislation that entrenches the status quo and accrues wealth and control to a ruling elite. The trend is not new, and is the basis of privilege, Latin for "private law," and stands in direct contrast to just laws aimed at the general welfare of a people. It is against such privilege that civil disobedience is most effective, by publicly forcing those in power to attempt to justify their private law.

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Risks of civil disobedience

Every form of protest carries some risk, but civil disobedience is perhaps the riskiest, since it involves breaking an established law and therefore opens the protesters up to the violence of the state either through physical attack or incarceration. It involves taking the moral high ground against an unjust government, and as such the standards that the protesters must abide by are strict, lest they give the state the opportunity to label them as terrorists or rebels, and potentially justify violence against them in the court of public opinion.

Success factors for civil disobedience

Every situation is different, but any given act of civil disobedience is likelier to succeed in ultimately changing an unjust law if as many of the following criteria as possible can be met:

  • Nonviolence by the protesters is maintained at all times;
  • All other routes of protest have been exhausted and have been ineffective;
  • The desired change in the law or policy can be understood in the context of a universal right, and not just for the profit of the protesters;
  • There exists at least a modestly free press to report the protest, and the protest is as public as possible;
  • The more the merrier;
  • The government is corrupt but not totalitarian.

Civil disobedience and revolutionary change

Civil disobedience is not limited to changing laws, but can also be part of a strategy of revolutionary change, given enough critical mass. If the enforcers of the law, the military and police, see that the majority of the public is against not only certain laws, but the government in general, then they can potentially be turned against their rulers and side with the will of the people, and the government can be changed, hopefully for the better.

In an autocratic state with little free press, civil disobedience is unlikely to be successful unless it is quite massive, since it cannot be made sufficiently public, and changing laws in such a system is close to impossible. An act of civil disobedience in such a situation is likely only to identify those dissatisfied with the status quo and bring the violence of the state upon them with no benefit. In such situations, the potential protesters should evaluate their dedication to the cause of political change, and consider an armed revolution instead.

Additional resources on civil disobedience

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Authors: Rebekah and Stephen Hren