Pros and cons of civil disobedience
By Khoo Ying Hooi
During his recent address at the annual Razak Lecture Series organised by the Razak School of Government,the Raja Muda of Perak, Raja Nazrin Shah said that Malaysians are increasingly polarised and he blames civil society groups, referring to the Bersih 3.0 rally, for contributing to this scenario.
I quote, "Civil society is rapidly becoming uncivil, and the spirit of give and take is being replaced with the spirit of take and take."
His statement reminds me to the influential essay written by Henry David Thoreau in 1849.
The essay has been variously titled but it is most often referred to simple as "On Civil Disobedience."
Civil disobedience is a form of civil resistance. It is also a form of protest. However the acts of civil disobedience must be distinguished from typical cases of crime and acts of civil rebellion.
Thoreau's political theories were not well known during his own time. Most of the time, he presented his ideas as lectures to small audiences or as articles in limited-circulation periodicals.
In 1890, Henry Salt published a collection of Thoreau's political essays, including 'On Civil Disobedience.'
Since then, Thoreau's essay has influenced many prominent figures for instance, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
Mahatma Gandhi at that time was still a young lawyer in South Africa protesting the unfair government treatment to the immigrant workers from India.
From Thoreau, Gandhi found the techniques he subsequently used in the struggle for Indian independence.
'On Civil Disobedience' is basically an essay that analyses the individual's relationship to the state.
It concentrates on why a person remains obedient to the governmental law although he or she believes it to be prejudiced.
The essay was in fact Thoreau's personal response to being imprisoned for breaking the law.
Thoreau decided to become a tax rebel because he despised slavery and that tax revenues contributed to the support of it.
He declined to pay the poll tax that violated his conscience and so, in July 1846, he was arrested and jailed.
He was released the next day after his relatives settled the "debt"; nevertheless he was very much irritated of that decision.
So how, then, did Thoreau manage to influence such political giants?
It is his refusal to pay his taxes and his choice of jail rather than support a war that would spread slavery's territory into Mexico that literally captured many hearts.
He asserted in his essay, "Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resigns his conscience to the legislator? Why has every man a conscience then? I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward.
"It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right."
If a man chose to be an agent of injustice, then Thoreau insisted on confronting him with the fact that he was making an option. This is the key to Thoreau's political philosophy. The individual is the final judge of right and wrong.
Thoreau also questioned that if the government is deems as the voice of the people, shouldn't that voice be considered?
Although at some points, government may express the will of the majority but we need to be mindful that it may also express nothing more than the will of elite politicians.
It is because as Thoreau said, even a good form of government is "liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it."
The reasons are pretty obvious. The people who believe they need a government are willing to accept an imperfect one.
Such people, Thoreau argued, accept government as a "necessary evil. "
Some may support government out of self-interest, while others obey simply because they fear the consequences of disobedience.
Historically, whether we realise it or the other way, civil disobedience has been important to this country's political development, alerting the majority to injustices and unwise policies.
Malaysia has long been apprehended of as located somewhere between the grey zone of democracy and authoritarianism.
Nowadays, civil society has become a legitimate path for social and political participation and for influencing policy formation and public opinion.
Alerts of change have started to come into sight during the 1998 Reformasi movement.
The contribution that Malaysia's nascent civil society made to the anti-authoritarian struggles is widely recognised today, not only locally but also internationally.
In sum, it would be unwise if the government of the day is still reluctant to view the civil society as part of their ‘survival kit'.
Without doubt, the state-civil society relation is essential for democracy. Without it, the common good of the people will be directly affected.
Khoo Ying Hooi is an academic member of staff at University Malaya. She is also a PhD candidate in the department of government and civilisation studies at the University Putra Malaysia.
Sorry to be obtuse.
what are the cons of civil disobedience?
David, why don´t you contribute your views before asking others to give you theirs?
We not living in postcolonial times, we are in the middle of colonial times, intellectual appropriation times and an open dialogue now requires for the initiator of the question to first identify your standpoint. Words lose meaning when I and others do not know under what assumptions are you asking.
The only argument against civil disobedience seemed to be lack of concern for justice, hardly much of an option. Did I misunderstand?
Categorical answers like those beginning with, "The only argument against..." are helpful when someone expands on the options. I hope you understand.
Another argument against civil disobedience could be some people's concerns about civil unrest, uncivility, uncontrolled anarchy.... Just a few.
In my opinion, for organized civil disobedience to benefit a particular society it must be composed of people willing to sacrifice personal comfort, and people capable of a high ethical standard and moral maturity.
Just a few possible follow up question:
Q-- Would Gandhian civil disobedience have worked in the US?
A-- I do not believe that people in a consumer and credit dependent society, like the one in the US, have the maturity follow a leader like Gandhi.
Q-- There are different levels of civil disobedience, anarchy is a radical form of civil disobedience. Is that what you were referring to in your original question?
A-- Anarchy is a viable outcome of civil disobedience. You practice a kind of anarchy in the way you live inside your house, you can make the rules as you go along, as long as you do not hurt anyone. But again we fall back on the issue of maturity and discipline in a society. Some societies honor discipline more than others.
So pleased to see where you are going
You appear closer to me politically than almost any person in the US.
I will probably seek extensive discussion of other concerns of mine, but let me address first what you raise.
I certainly don't like the thought that it is particularly difficult to organize satyagraha in a Western consumer credit society, but you are right. This is probably why the most advanced Gandhians in the US, the Metta Society of Berkeley, don't do resistance work.
I'm particularly impressed that you do not condemn anarchy categorically, linking its value to the level of discipline.
I'm also impressed that you don't list repression as a downside, because that is intrinsic to satyagraha. To some degree high disciple might eventually mean less overall repression, certainly in the long run, but it should be expected.
I am almost completely isolated in my attempts to generate real consideration in the US of Gandhi's approach to resistance. I am a pale shadow of the Mahatma, but I only allow that to keep me questioning myself, not enough to convince me I am completely underserving of his mantle.
Are you open to further discussion along these lines?
Allow me to add I had a roommate from Penang in my early 20's. (I'm 61). I consider him to be the most self disciplined person I have ever known.
Thank you David.
I welcome a discussion on these topics. And since most of what I write revolves around ways to explore some multidisciplinary contributions to social justice that integrate the political, spiritual, scientific, and artistic fields into an ever evolving and adapting conversation, and not into a "realistic" anything since the notion of reality itself is not yet "open" or fluid enough, to include and give voice to those who have been at the margins and exploited for too long.
In my humble opinion, you address what I tend to call an East-West cognitive dissonance... The higher and nobler your ideals, the more deconstruction will be required within the Eurocentric mental constructs, one great teacher of mine calls it "the conditioned mind." I found the work of Edward Hall on the challenges that low-context languages and cultures represent to anyone attempting to translate or transfer the depth and breath of cultural wealth of a high-context language and culture like India's which is influenced by Sanskrit ( a language which emerged from ancient sages high states of mind, ecstatic mystics birthing the science of sound to articulate their experiences.
How do we explain satyagraha in English and Eurocentric US culture if not in volumes?
Are we aware of the power of the oppressed/repressed, while ignoring the weakness of character of the oppressor just because the oppressor has the money and the oppressed has strong bones?
Is Moksha the ultimate anarchy? But anarchy with utmost dharma and universal love and responsibility.
I appreciate that you compare yourself to the "shadow" of the Mahatma... it is better than Western psychology which is obsessed with mental pathology and therefore sees the world, and everyone in it, from the lens of an egometer microscope. Having a high standard is the most inspiring way to move more steadily to our destination (higher human potential). Self-discipline to me is a lifetime's work. I am privileged to have lived in close proximity, in relative time, to one who spontaneously embodies Prajna. But even that is the work of who knows how many previous lives... from the point of view of Indian dualistic, Samkhya or Kavala Adwaita, philosophy. While from the point of view of nondualist Adwaita Vedanta, we are already perfected beings, waiting to remove (neti-neti) or deconstruct layers of sociopathologies imposed upon the mind from birth.
I consider no work more thrilling than this work. Unfortunately, the fact that I was not born in India renders me quite suspicious to Indian scholars, many of whom were educated in Western ways and consider India as nation, while India for me is not an object of possession, she is Mother of this three bodies: physical, mental, and unconscious (causal).
Perhaps my approach to Gandhian studies is informed by Gandhi's body, mind, unconscious being rooted in Vyasa's, Valmiki's and Tulasidasji's stories. The West is beginning to scratch the surface on the power of the oral tradition. Ref. "Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong, and "Heuristic Research," Clark Moustakas. I welcome your suggestions on a simpler approach to the complexity of the issues. This is a work of self-discovery for me, as much as it may be for so many. But I believe it is urgent work that the whole planet can benefit from. I am grateful to this forum where it is possible to have this conversation.
I am unfamiliar with so many of the Proper Names you use. I guess I can look them up on the computer rather than asking you to explain each.
Allow me to review the immediate challenges for me, who is more of an organizer than a thinker. I claim to be the only regular practitioner of public arrest for a higher cause (nonviolent civil disobedience OR civil resistance), who advocates Gandhi's approach to resistance, ie plead guilty and suffer in jail to touch the heart of the adversary. The secular based folks don't mind at all getting arrested in groups of over 100 where no one does one night in jail. Everyone knows to be polite, but no one cares to try to touch the heart of the adversary.
I don't mind people admitting Gandhi's approach is too stringent for their western being, but I do mind their supression of discussion of the issues involved.
I was arrested at the US White House in DC with over 100 people in March of 2011 and went to court with 18 others in October. Three respected activists. including one of the 18 successfully convinced the rest except for 3 to refuse to have conversation with me about the issues I raise. They used falsehood and duplicitousness in the process. I held a sign hardly noticed at the press conference in October saying,
The Police understand Nonviolence Better than My Co-defendents(then I excepted the 3 who would have conversation with me). The point is that ALL police know that it's better for people in disagreement to TRY to work things out. It is so rare to find anyone who would discuss nonviolence that resistance to conversation with someone who is dedicated to it is hard for me to fathom.
The Group, Veterans for Peace, has refused to allow me to present a workshop at their national convention for the second year in a row. I have told them I will make them arrest me.
I'd prefer it to go by the principle of minimum disruption, maximum sacrifice. I will be seeking a choreographed arrest where I only step forward with a sign during some talk and am arrested immediately. If necessary I will stand in front of the speaker speaking myself until I'm arrested. I'd be surprised if the beat me, but I'm ready to not fight back if attacked.
My political position is that I accuse them of being cowards, but not of being deserving of being hated. I have an old friend who I realize is a terrible coward. I don't love him any less. There is a lot more to this, but this is a good beginning for you to review.
David friend, now I can understand a little better the cognitive dissonance in our initial attempts at communication. It has been my experience before, that just as when we read a book, the reader and the writer begin at odd ends and one gets to know the other better by the end of the book... but the author will know little about the readers until they attempt a public communication. Here we are fortunate to meet in a writing forum and clarify the assumptions and episteme that color your sense of Gandhian activism, quite a different approach to the one that I pursue.
I am glad that you consider finding some of the terms in google. I understand that you studied at MIT, please tell me what was your concentration. And if you are a social scientist, i will not dare bore you with my spiritualist outlook of that field. But knowing your academic background will give me a better idea of what questions to ask you.
My academic background is in Transformative Leadership, Goddess Thealogy, Indian Spirituality, Ecofeminism and what is erroneously called Postcolonial Studies... because most of the world is still under a colonial rule--whether politically, economically or militarily is another question.
To your statement that it is "rare to find anyone who would discuss nonviolence that resistance to conversation with someone who is dedicated to it is hard for me to fathom," reminds me of the difficulties among academics to reach consensus... all who take theories to hair splitting atomic levels find themselves deeper and further sunk in individualism, create a whole language of their own, and are further away from the possibility to communicate with the rest of humanity. In my humble opinion that is part of the problem among intellectuals and academics.
It has given me great delight to search and find (and to collect) a good database of "friends" with whom there is a two way stream of appreciation and little use for arguments. The two way stream of appreciation relates to me as a reader-learner, and the fact that as reader and writer, I will keep using, sharing and furthering the theories, contributions and life work of the writer the best I can. This includes some of the principles in Appreciative Inquiry (a new theory, I suggest you search because it is most healing to those of us who want to contribute to a better world, like I see that you do).
You have more experience with being at the front of the resistance movement than i will ever have. I feel almost clear that the very same methods that Gandhiji so effectively and efficiently used in India, are not, let me stress... are not going to work, are not going to make a dent, and are not effective in the past or present US political and social structures.
To explain the reasons why I believe that the particular Gandhian methods that you are advocating, or the ones which you mentioned in the above posting, I would have to write a dissertation on the topic. But because I am presently in the middle of an almost cognitive breakdown from having gone through a Western liberal, postcolonial, empiricist, Gaia Goddess oriented, Religion and Philosophy MA program, which has my limited mind swimming between Sanatan Dharma and an epistemic cognitive dissonance from two different English languages: one the English language of the academics studied in the MA program, and the other English language is the translated version of the Ramayana, Bhagavad Gita, Upanishads, Yoga Vashishtha and Devi Mahatmya which informed my life for thirty years before entering academia.
So, it is in this frail state of mind that I hope to find a co-writer for a dissertation on precisely this topic. In my humble opinion, i have much to offer, it includes a Systems Theory approach to the intersectionality and the easternalization of present social sciences rendition of Indian masters including Mahatma Gandhi, S. Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo and Holy Mothers. But, if God/Goddess wishes i snap out of the writer's block about these many intersecting theories and methodologies borrowed from India, i will take it is Divine Will that i write alone.
Why I tell you all this? It may seem on a limb or quite tangential to your post above. It is only from the point of view of my life experiences that I can quite clearly See why Gandhian methods cannot work in the US. The US public has been brainwashed and robotized to the point of most people being mentally undistinguishable human entities from the people who supported Gandhian methods in pre 1949 India. We are almost talking about a different creature.
I stopped using words like cowards, because they ended up hurting me more than the weaklings against whom I directed them. Now I prefer to say that social conditioning has promoted sociopathologies which are profitable to a totalitarian state. And in the US, there are many reasons why any sensible person would end feeling anxious, depressed, bipolar, terrorized, afraid, panickattacked, and many more...
In the US of today, I believe that one needs to be a rock or an insentient being not to fall under one of the above categories. It is not completely so, let me correct myself: a sensible sentient being would not fit into any psycho-pathological description if s/he enters into the stream of Compassion outlined by saints, sages and other angelic personalities, as I hope most of us here are.
Documentary suggestions. I am aware that viewing these documentaries is not a pleasant task, is not easy, and may be intensely rejected by most people in the US (especially those associated by blood, kinship or any other affiliation to psychiatry and psychology professionals). The documentaries below point out to an undoubted evidence of social control for profit. Other documentaries upon request.
Century of the Self Parts 1-4
Psychiatry: An Industry of Death
I welcome your views. These are some of the sources from which I draw in order to reach the aforementioned conclusions. I have not invented this wheel. It has been rolling for a while, and there are as many uncertainties as reasons why. After you view these documentaries, I would ask if you still believe that a society molded in such a way is capable of understanding your attempts at Gandhian resistance in the purest ways.
Thanks so much for your response.
I am sorry that I do not have time to read or view videos extensively as I have a 40 hour a week job ,read slowly,don't even take care of my health because of my activist dedication, and have much reading I have assigned myself for projects I'm in the middle of. I understand you are a scholar, but I am not. I was not much of a scholar in school either. In college there were many automatic A courses and I took all of them. In high school I only worked hard enough to do the minimum to get my A. I also got some B's.
I am not a social scientist. I have a degree in management, a misnomer if the ever was one. The professors who inspired me the most at MIT were Noam Chomsky, who I'm sure you are familiar with, and Lillian Robinson, a radical feminist and teacher of literature.Lillian was very young and helped take over the president's office with the radical students so she taught elsewhere after that. She was friends with feminist scholar Kate Millet. Lillian eventually co wrote a large book on the sextrade in Thailand.
You really don't have to go into depth to make the argument about the centrality of capitalist exploitation in the US. When you think to refer to a documentary or book, just summarizing its significance for you will be sufficient. (I'm so old I actually once had a phone conversation with Bernays when volunteer fundraising for the Civil Liberties Union.)
As I think I stated before.the foremost Gandhians in the US, the Metta Center of Berkeley, led by UC California Prof Emeritus Michael Nagler does not do resistance work believing it is too much to ask Americans to make the required sacrifices. They challenge people more over commercialism in the culture, which I suspect would fit better with your thinking.
Nevertheless, because the US IS the beast and I live in the belly of the beast, resistance to its injustices is relatively more valuable. In addition, there are people who get arrested publicly as a way to confront injustice. I wouldn't THINK of trying to interest my friends who are not radicals in Gandhi, but the folks who do get arrested or who even do normal grassroots organizing with public education and lobby legislatures LOVE to quote Gandhiji, so they deserve to understand some of Bapu's most challenging ways. For people who regularly get arrested in protest to suppress discussion of Gandhi is more that cowardly, it is hypocritical.
I expect to speak three places the next several months. I will give a newer version of my 2007 talk, "Nonviolent Resistance in the US Can be Practiced with Greater Strength" Here's link to a transcript http://NonviolentResistanceCanBeStronger.blogspot.com/
Alsi I expect to speak at the Occupy national gathering in Philadelphia. just before July 4. They invited AE911Truth.org, my primary activist group to speak, and needed no pressure to let me speak on nonviolence. They had experienced arrests in dozens of cities and have newfound interest in NVCD.
I will speak at the national Green Party Convention in my hometown of Baltimore in mid July on the topic of nonviolent resistance being able to help build the Party. I usually don't do electoral work, but I do vote because it doesn't take much time. In addition, nonviolence is one of the 10 founding principles of the Greens. Generally people who run for office associate NVCD with angry interaction with the police and dislike it, but if you suffer in jail to touch the heart of the adversary, you show yourself to at least PROBABLY not be a run of the mill self serving politician.
I did have to threaten them with making them arrest me if they didn't let me speak. The Green Party candidate for governor last election in my state is one of the 3 people who used deception to convince my co defendants to not discuss Gandhi last October. The Green Party argued that they were not responsible for her behavior. I explained that if I make them arrest me it won't be that bad, that I think they are great, that i'll plead guilty to any reasonable misdemeanor, and I'll take my chances that my action will touch their very good hearts.
I increasingly focus on actions against ostensible allies who BECAUSE they DO have good hearts. In comparable situations Gandhiji might have fasted, However, that would assume he considered such people he was focusing on to be be people who loved him. These folks do not love me. They consider me a "pain in the ass." as I was recently called in 2 separate situations. As I told my MIT class president a decade ago," I'm a troublemaker, but I'm nice about it."
As an aside, allow me to remember last week's 40th MIT class reunion where I was sitting at a table with one fellow who is VP of a Fortune 50 weapons manufacturer across from me, to my left a recent retiree for a major oil company, and to my right a dear friend with whom I worked against the Vietnam War and even went to Montreal in 1975 to congratulate people from Vietnam. Cambodia, and Laos upon their victory over the American invaders. I've been arrested MANY times a nuclear power plants and generally admit that I take the unpopular position that if avoiding nuclear power means we have to cut back on energy use, so be it. The fellow who had just retired from a large oil company then ALSO agreed on the need to cut back on energy use. The collegiality of this conversation was beautiful. I am so very fortunate that I like everyone.
Also,the Gandhi Center at the University of Rochester did like my 2007 talk and expects to let me speak as part of a panel in the fall. Gandhiji's grandson Arun Gandhi founded that Center and was forced to quit when he made a non-nasty statement suggesting he thought Israel was oppressing Palestinians.
I do think it is fair now for me to give people an extra excuse for not choosing a jail sacrifice. The pragmatism philosophy developed in the US by William James certainly makes it less likely for those who live within such an eventually commercialized culture to see value in such a highly principled approach as needs to be associated with Gandhi.
The concept of suffering to touch the heart of the adversary may be difficult for the 2 political audiences I'll encounter this summer. Occupy is based on the philosophy of seeing the 1% as the adversary. It is a class structure analysis avoiding Marx's concerns about the relationship to the means of production. If it is more important to hold onto hating the 1%, civil disobedience seems inappropriate. Gandhi would call it nonviolence of the weak. However, since some Occupy activists received positive attention by sitting quietly while being maced. Such activity has enough in common with nonviolence that the strongest form of nonviolence needs be explored.
Do I have your permission to place our conversation on my "Gandhian Resistance" facebook page?
Glad to see you are posting replies to this news item. I am putting forth here some of my views that could make this discussion open and realistic.
In a democratic setup, civil disobedience is the one that seems to be the greatest change maker in the society or politics. Many governments are ready to respond positively to a civil disobedience movement rather than the fights fought for human rights, individual claims etc..etc..
I have even heard from many local administrators that civil disobedience and mass turn-up alone would threaten them enough to take the right step. Many authorities oblige to civil pressure rather than individual's pressure however nonviolent they are.
I like your views on current political situations in the U.S. Regards.