Civil disobedience” evokes a range of reactions when people hear the term. Some instinctively wince, regarding it as anti-social or subversive.
Others, like me, want to know more before we judge. What is prompting someone to engage in it? Who will be affected and how? What does the “disobedient” person hope to accomplish? Are there alternative actions that might be more effective?
One of my earliest memories from childhood was an act of civil disobedience. My family resided near Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, about 11 miles from the Ohio border town of Negley. At the time, Pennsylvania prohibited the unauthorized introduction and sale of milk from Ohio. On many a Saturday in the late 1950s and early 1960s, my father and I would drive over to Negley and fill the back seat of our car with good, cheap milk. During the drive back home, he would caution me to “keep it covered and don’t say anything if the cops pull us over.”
For me, milk smuggling was a thrill ride. It was downright exciting to evade a stupid law while keeping an eye out for a cop who might have nothing better to do than bust a couple of notorious dairy dealers. I know my dad made a few bucks when he re-sold the milk to happy neighbors. We never had any regrets or pangs of conscience for committing this victimless crime. We were simply supporting a cause that even Abraham Lincoln may have endorsed when he said, “The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly.”
Government officials hate civil disobedience because it’s a disgruntled citizen’s way of thumbing his nose. If we’re unhappy with laws or policies that are stupid, destructive, corrupt, counterproductive, unconstitutional, or in other ways indefensible, they advise us to do the “democratic” thing—which means hope for the best in a future election, stand in line to be condescended to at some boring public hearing, or just shut up.
My go-to expert on the issue is not a politician or a preacher or an academic. It’s Henry David Thoreau, who famously asked, “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.”
If the choice is obedience or conscience, I try my best to pick conscience.
Historically, civil disobedience—the refusal to comply with a law or command of a political authority—is exceedingly common. Sometimes it is quiet and largely unnoticeable. Other times it is boisterous and public. For an act to be one of civil disobedience, it must be accompanied by principled or philosophical objections to a law or command (to exclude such acts as simple theft, fraud, and the like).
Some political theorists argue that to qualify as civil disobedience, an act must be peaceful; others allow for violence in their definition of the term. Revolutions are certainly acts of disobedience, though because they tend to be accompanied by violence they often aren’t very “civil.” In any event, the indefensible violence this week in Washington should not blind us to the very honorable history of genuine civil disobedience and its loftier motivations.
Here’s a short list of what I call “great moments in civil disobedience.” There’s no particular order other than chronological, and I wouldn’t even claim these are all among the “top” examples in history. They are, at the least, interesting food for thought. See how many of them you could endorse.