Over the years, civil disobedience has been employed to impact society positively. Though sometimes frowned upon and eliciting debate due to its infringement of the law, non-violent civil disobedience has brought positive changes that made the community better. With its roots in the 1840s, after Henry David Thoreau coined the term and participated in civil disobedience, it later came to be used by civil rights activists such as Martin Luther King Jr. to cause change. This essay seeks to check whether non-violent civil disobedience is justifiable by weighing its benefits vis-a-vis its drawbacks.
Civil disobedience involves deliberate defiance to one or more laws viewed as immoral, unjust, and unconstitutional while advocating for a change of the law. Civil disobedience was coined by Henry David Thoreau, who wrote an essay titled On the Duty of Civil Disobedience in 1848. In the paper, he advocated everybody’s right to follow their perspective in doing what is right or wrong. Thoreau doubted the effectiveness of reform in the government, arguing that voting attains little and that citizens ought to do more to fight injustice. In protest of slavery, brutal Native American treatment, and the war against Mexico, Thoreau declined to pay state poll taxes for seven straight years. Some of the prominent civil disobedience in history include the suffrage movement, the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., resistance to apartheid in South Africa, the fight for democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar, amongst others.
Citizens can use civil disobedience to protect the rights of individuals (Chief, 2018). This civil disobedience may happen when individuals’ rights are trampled on by authorities causing people to join in on a movement to compel action on the issue. Civil disobedience also provides another form of checks and balances from citizens. Though not as formal as the checks and balances by the three arms of government, it provides an alternative voice that may lead a government to change cause on respective issues. The civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. is a case in point. He was motivated by his commitment to justice, equality, and religious convictions to undertake the Montgomery bus boycotts after the Rosa Parks arrest incident. Over time, this precipitated and led to the signing of the voting rights act and various civil rights acts. This example shows the importance of civil disobedience in protecting individual rights.
Due to little or no representation for minority communities, the government’s laws and policies may directly be harmful to them. As a result, non-violent civil disobedience gives ethnic and racial minorities a way to protest and have their voices heard, which may not be the case due to little or no representation on a national level where decisions and policies are made (Chief, 2018). Civil disobedience raises concerns, leading to a national debate allowing others to follow their conscience on what is right or wrong. One of the government’s responsibilities is to ensure justice for all. When injustice occurs, people can take a moral stand whether the injustice is right or wrong and whether civil disobedience is the direction to take.
Civil disobedience has occasioned military and dictatorial governments’ removal from power, causing democratic elections, leading to representative elected governments in the past. An example of this is the fight for democracy movement led by Aung Syu Kyi in Myanmar, which led to installing a democratically elected government. This example shows the power that civil disobedience can have in changing the direction a nation is headed. Another example is the Arab Spring in 2011 in the Middle East which led to the removal of dictatorial governments.
Civil disobedience, just as it is used for just causes, can be used for unjust reasons (Chief, 2018). It can promote causes that seek to maintain status quos that may favor the majority while leaving behind the minority. An example of this is the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which had neo-Nazis and white nationalists who chanted anti-Semitic words and carried Nazi symbols. If they had their way, it would constitute an unjust cause.
Due to non-violent civil disobedience’s aims to stand against a particular set of law or laws, this may lead to confrontation with the authorities and may turn violent as authoritarian leaders may try to stop them forcefully. This turn from nonviolence to being meted with violence by the police to prevent them may lead to injuries and even death. An example is the ongoing civil disobedience in Myanmar, where the military leaders led a coup from the democratically elected government. Citizens decided to engage in non-violent civil disobedience, followed by brute force from the military-led government, leading to life loss.
In conclusion, the benefits society has in the past have resulted from civil disobedience outweigh the drawbacks of Martin Luther King Jr’s civil rights movement, the fight for democracy movement led by Aung Syu Kyi. These were forms of civil disobedience that have had a significant impact on society. Even though civil disobedience can be used to push unjust causes and sometimes turn from non-violent to violent causing injury and destruction of property.
Chief, E. (2018). 19 Major Pros and Cons of Civil Disobedience. ConnectUS. Web.