Snappy Page Essence
Civil disobedience is a form of protest to act on your moral right and correct injustice. The citizen grants the state its authority and the citizen can oppose authority if compelled by conscience.
"So the point isn't to have a victory over somebody else but rather to effect change. And change is a lot more rapid and a lot more enduring if you get the cooperation of what would otherwise be your adversary." Henry Spira (1)
What Is Civil Disobedience
Civil disobedience usually entails non-violent actions, such as marches, demonstrations, strikes, sit-ins or occupation of buildings. Civil disobedience is a form of protest. The reason for being a civil resister or dissenter is to act on your moral right and correct an injustice you perceive. You are trying to reverse or stop some process or make an appeal to correct or revoke a law. You are a dissenter every time you deliberately disobey the law or a demand by government, believing that your action is just and the law or government is unfair or harmful.
Henry David Thoreau (1817 - 1862), American philosopher, naturalist and writer, is often cited as articulating the belief that people have a duty not to take part in a perceived injustice and to resist any government or its agent forcing people to participate. Thoreau asserted that it is the citizen who grants the state its authority and the citizen can oppose unjust authority if compelled by conscience.
Dissenters from all kinds of background, including suffragists, feminists, anti-war demonstrators and nuclear bomb protesters, have engaged in civil disobedience. Among the biggest and best-known practitioners of civil disobedience are the Indian Mohandas Gandhi (1869 - 1948) and the American Martin Luther King Jr (1929 - 1968). Gandhi practised civil disobedience as a weapon in his struggle for independence for India from British rule. King fought peacefully for black-American civil rights. Both men were beaten and jailed - even non-violent acts of civil disobedience risk retaliation and verbal or physical attack by opponents and police - but attracted huge numbers of supporters and co-civil rights rebels.
Gandhi outlined some key rules when carrying out civil disobedience. They convey the flavour of his form of campaigning:
- Tolerate the anger and assaults of your opponents.
- Do not get angry, insult or retaliate against your opponents.
- Submit to arrest.
- These are good rules in that they clearly tell you what to do and, all things being equal, do not jeopardise your cause.
Civil Disobedience & Animal Rights
Some animal rights issues attracting civil disobedience actions are:
- Laboratories experimenting on animals: they invite break-ins.
- Factory farms: they attract open and clandestine rescues (see Chapter 4 under Animal Rescuer).
- Fur shops: they have been picketed (see Chapter 3: Picketing), their locks super-glued and windows smashed.
- Fox hunting with hounds: solicit hunt saboteurs to challenge them.
- The last of these, campaigning for foxes against fox hunters with hounds, had a successful legal judgement in Britain when the sport was outlawed by Act of Parliament (coming into force in 2003 in Scotland and 2004 in England). This campaigning for foxes had much effort and a long history spanning at least two generations of activists. One kind of campaign took the form of hunt sabotage, a good example of animal rights civil disobedience.
Hunt sabotage began in 1960's Britain and may have been the first methodical non-violent action to confront organised hunting of animals for sport. The hunt saboteurs (or 'sabs') engaged hunters with hounds (or 'hunts'). The job of the sabs was to make hunting impractical by delaying or confusing the hounds to give the quarry (usually foxes and sometimes deer) a chance to escape. Two sab techniques are blowing hunting horns and covering a quarry's sent with pungent sprays to mislead the hounds.
Sabs were not kindly tolerated by the hunts. Hunts reacted to the sabotage by employing private security firms and their own supporters to take on the sabs, sometimes violently. Police at hunts became a common sight and policing and public order problems emerged. Police sometimes pretended not to notice when hunts attacked sabs, possibly partly because they were unsure of what powers hunts could legally use. The Conservative government, numbering many hunters in their membership, also came down on the sabs by enacting laws specifically obstructing sab action. The sabs replied by disobeying the laws in the field and disputing them in the courts. Eventually, a sympathetic (Labour) government pushed through an Act of Parliament banning hunting with dogs. The sabs had pulled through and won (although not alone, as other bodies contributed). Even so, the hunts continue to engage in superficially outwardly legal activities and the hunt sabs continue to engage them.
Arguments For & Against Civil Disobedience
Some people have certain misconceptions and criticisms of civil disobedience. Here are some of the claims and counter claims.
- Claim: You cannot excuse civil disobedience in a democracy because unjust laws can be changed by democratic procedures.
- Claim: Civil disobedience is a democratic activity. Democratic governments hold power by virtue of the individual citizens who elect them and if change is blocked by a government then dissenters can unblock it with appropriate doses of civil disobedience.
- Regular Channels
- Claim: Civil disobedience should be the last resort in a democracy. First you must exhaust all existing channels of communication for change.
- Claim: There is a point when appealing through regular channels becomes futile and delays furthering your cause. Besides, regular channels are often part of the problem.
- Claim: Being a citizen you enjoy the rights and benefits of your country. Therefore you must in turn obey your country's customs and laws.
- Claim: This is every reason for challenging what you see as unjust, in order to make your country a better place to live.
- Claim: Lawlessness and anarchy would reign if everyone were a civil-disobedience activist.
- Claim: If we do not challenge government and its laws we could slip into oppression and despotism.
(1) Spira, Henry. The Vegan.com Interview, by Erik Marcus. 1998. (Accessed March 2007.)
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