The Rules of Civil Disobedience

Several years ago, I was having a conversation with my son.  Somehow, it got into the subject of Civil Disobedience.  After the conversation was over, I got to thinking about Civil Disobedience more deeply, and I realized I needed to establish for myself and my family a set of rules to govern the right to disapprove of what our government was doing loudly, in a way the government could not ignore.

Rule 1:  To perform effective Civil Disobedience, you have to live an otherwise excellent life.  You must be productive, law-abiding and a basically good citizen.  You cannot let the authorities call you a rabble rouser, a vagrant, a miscreant or anything of that nature.  Your disobedience must be a clear break from your normal behavior.  You also cannot be a person who, when you bring forth a moral cause, has tables turned on you because of your own questionable character.

Rule 2:  You must pick your battles wisely.  You must be sure that the object of your disobedience is contrary to the very fiber of your moral being.  You cannot engage in honorable Civil Disobedience against, for example, a traffic ticket, a silly homeowner’s association rule, or a loaf of moldy bread.  You must feel so strongly about your issue that you are prepared to accept any consequences of your action to make a major statement about it.  This is part of not becoming known as a trouble maker.  It is not effective when your arrest is simply another eye roll to wit, “there he goes again.”

Rule 3:  You must be prepared to take full consequence for your behavior (see rule 2).  You must not allow it to be plea-bargained down, trivialized, or watered down.

Rule 4:  You must be very clear about what it is you are protesting, what you want changed and how you want it to wind up.  During the Viet Nam war, the most effective conscientious objectors actually did time in jail rather than fight in an immoral war.  They did not allow their legal representatives to water down the charges.  They stood firm in what they did, repeated what they did in strong voices and faced the full extent of the law about it.

Rule 5:  You must ensure that word of your actions gets to the world at large.  You must be sure your voice, your own voice, is heard by a wide audience.  You must be very clear, when you are heard, of what you believe and why you believe obeying whatever law you are protesting is immoral and you cannot support it.

Rule 6:  You must have a dog in the fight.  You cannot let the courts find your objections moot because you are not affected by whatever it is you are protesting.  When we had a draft, women could not be considered conscientious objectors because they could not be drafted.  However, they could be objectors when it was a family member who was being sent to war.  (To be sure, women could and did protest, but the official recognition of conscientious objector status was not conferred on women.)  You must decide how it is that you have a dog in the fight and that that dog is precious to you.  When it comes to war, I think it is enough to say that your government is fighting in your name and you condemn the reason for it.  But you must feel it is immoral enough to protest.

After we went over the rules, I told my son that if he ever felt strongly enough to engage in Civil Disobedience, it was not necessarily a right, but it was an obligation.  We, as Americans, are the foundation of our government.  It is up to us to make our government behave morally.  We have been falling down in this.

Now I come to a question that has bothered me all day.  How do we use these rules to engage in Civil Disobedience today?  How do we let our government know that we insist that we only go to war when the cause is acceptable?  That this war is not acceptable?  How do we let our government know that we must have a public option?  That ruining families because they have no access to health care is immoral?  How do we let our government know that considering corporations “individuals” is not moral?

The tea partiers are engaging in their form of Civil Disobedience but it is not having the impact that encourages thoughtful discourse.  I think they are not being effective.  Back in the 60s Civil Disobedience took the form of sit-ins and marches.  While that did cause the establishment to look at the protestors as trouble makers, eventually they won.  Same with Ghandi.  And Martin Luther King.  Effective Civil Disobedience.

I am beginning to wonder if it is time to start thinking about organized civil disobedience … and if so, what form it should take.

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