An unfortunate trend in American politics has been that the rhetoric of our political discussions seems to grow more violent even as the issues we are fighting over become less significant. War and civil rights were big issues that effected people’s lives in dramatic ways. The current debate (at least to me) doesn’t seem to have the same significance, but clearly other people disagree. When one looks at the history of nonviolent resistance, as distinguished from either mere free speech or violent activities, I see two cases where it is justified.
First, when a group is disenfranchised in relation to the political system so that there is no real opportunity to effect change through political activities, then nonviolent resistance is almost the only choice short of violence. The two classic examples of this situation are the independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi in India and the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in the United States.
In both these situations, a people had been excluded from participation in the political sphere. India was a colony of England and its independence movement was more notable for lack of violence than for its presence—at least since the American Revolution the right of a people to resort to arms to throw off its colonizer has been implicitly recognized. The position of African Americans in the United States was more complex, but the similarities outweighed the differences.
Although ensured the right to vote by the Fifteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1870:
Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
African Americans had not been able to exercise that right, especially in the American South. The nonviolent movement led by Dr. King was crucial to making it possible to exercise the right of the franchise.
Those two cases are well-known and easily justified. The more complicated case is the one raised by Thoreau, whether nonviolent resistance (civil disobedience) is justified when the law does not correspond with one’s conscience:
“Must the citizen ever for a moment, or in the least degree, resign 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.”
Civil Disobedience, http://thoreau.eserver.org/civil1.html. (All quotations are from the same source).
It is true that Thoreau relies, to some extent, on his disenfranchisement to support his position:
“As for adopting the ways which the State has provided for remedying the evil, I know not of such ways. They take too much time, and a man's life will be gone. I have other affairs to attend to. I came into this world, not chiefly to make this a good place to live in, but to live in it, be it good or bad. A man has not everything to do, but something; and because he cannot do everything, it is not necessary that he should do something wrong. It is not my business to be petitioning the Governor or the Legislature any more than it is theirs to petition me; and if they should not hear my petition, what should I do then? But in this case the State has provided no way; its very Constitution is the evil.”
[Thoreau’s civil obedience is based on his opposition to slavery, which was of course given legal approval in the United States Constitution.]
I don’t find this part of his argument particularly convincing. The Constitution, after all, provides a method of amending itself. Nor do I believe that if slavery had not been enshrined in the Constitution that Thoreau’s position would have changed. Instead, I believe that Thoreau outlines a second exception to our obligation to obey the laws and work through the process, when a governmental action violates our conscience.
The problem with this justification is that it appears to cover almost any situation and justifies resistance to almost any law, with only the vagaries of our individual consciences as a check. It is relativism of the most expansive sort. It is chaos.
Our individual beliefs vary too greatly to serve as a guide for action if we are to maintain an ordered society. I do not think this statement is to strong. If you look at places in the world where individual actions are governed by conscience rather than law, then you can look to Israel/Palestine, to Afghanistan, to Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s. In short, you look at places where civil society has failed.
To find a way to place some limit on this right to express your conscience is difficult, at least when approached on a theoretical basis. I do not know your conscience and you do not know mine. I think a better approach is to look at Thoreau’s actions; at the way in which he expressed his conscience: Thoreau went to jail.
“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.”
The true test of whether nonviolent resistance is justifiable, then, is whether you are willing to go to jail for your conscience.
Of course, to go to jail means you have to violate a law. Other than some isolated examples, and the possibility of charges of Disorderly Conduct, I am not sure that the conservative protestors at the Town Hall meetings have violated any law.
In that case, their actions don’t reach the level of nonviolent force or civil disobedience. They are simply rude, a topic about which I will have more to say on another day.