Civil disobedience is the active refusal to obey certain laws, demands and commands of a government, or of an occupying power, without resorting to physical violence. It is one of the primary tactics of nonviolent resistance. In its most nonviolent form (known as ahimsa or satyagraha) it could be said that it is compassion in the form of respectful disagreement.
Civil disobedience is one of the many ways people have rebelled against unfair laws. It has been used in many well-documented nonviolent resistance movements in India (Gandhi's social welfare campaigns and campaigns for independence from the British Empire), in South Africa in the fight against apartheid, in the American Civil Rights Movement, Jehovah's Witnesses' stand against the Nazis (1929-1945), and in peace movements worldwide. One of its earliest massive implementations was by Egyptians against the British occupation in the nonviolent 1919 Revolution.
The American author Henry David Thoreau pioneered the modern theory behind this practice in his 1849 essay Civil Disobedience, originally titled "Resistance to Civil Government". The driving idea behind the essay was that of self-reliance, and how one is in morally good standing as long as one can "get off another man's back"; so one does not have to physically fight the government, but one must not support it or have it support one (if one is against it). This essay has had a wide influence on many later practitioners of civil disobedience. In the essay, Thoreau explained his reasons for having refused to pay taxes as an act of protest against slavery and against the Mexican-American War.
Early uses of the term
Thoreau did not coin the term "civil disobedience". However, after his landmark 1848 lectures were published in 1849, the term "civil disobedience" began to appear in numerous sermons and lectures relating to slavery in the United States. Early examples of these include:
- The Gospel Applied to the Fugitive Slave Law : A Sermon, by Oliver Stearns (1851);
- "The Higher Law," in Its Application to the Fugitive Slave Bill:... by John Newell and John Chase Lord (1851);
- The Limits of Civil Disobedience: A Sermon..., by Nathaniel Hall (1851);
- The Duty and Limitations of Civil Disobedience: A Discourse, by Samuel Colcord Bartlett (1853).
Thus, by the time Thoreau's lectures were first published under the title "Civil Disobedience," in 1866, four years after his death, the term had achieved fairly widespread usage.
Theories and techniques
In seeking an active form of civil disobedience, one may choose to deliberately break certain laws, such as by forming a peaceful blockade or occupying a facility illegally. Protesters practice this non-violent form of civil disorder
with the expectation that they will be arrested, or even attacked or beaten by the authorities. Protesters often undergo training in advance on how to react to arrest or to attack, so that they will do so in a manner that quietly or limply resists without threatening the authorities.
For example, Mahatma Gandhi outlined the following rules, in the time when he was leading India in the struggle for Independence from the British Empire:
- A civil resister (or satyagrahi) will harbour no anger.
- He will suffer the anger of the opponent.
- In so doing he will put up with assaults from the opponent, never retaliate; but he will not submit, out of fear of punishment or the like, to any order given in anger.
- When any person in authority seeks to arrest a civil resister, he will voluntarily submit to the arrest, and he will not resist the attachment or removal of his own property, if any, when it is sought to be confiscated by authorities.
- If a civil resister has any property in his possession as a trustee, he will refuse to surrender it, even though in defending it he might lose his life. He will, however, never retaliate.
- Retaliation includes swearing and cursing.
- Therefore a civil resister will never insult his opponent, and therefore also not take part in many of the newly coined cries which are contrary to the spirit of ahimsa.
- A civil resister will not salute the Union Flag, nor will he insult it or officials, English or Indian.
- In the course of the struggle if anyone insults an official or commits an assault upon him, a civil resister will protect such official or officials from the insult or attack even at the risk of his life.
Civil disobedience has served as a major tactic of nationalist
movements in former colonies
prior to their gaining independence
Most notably Mahatma Gandhi
developed civil disobedience as an anti-colonialist tool. Gandhi stated "Civil disobedience is the inherent right of a citizen to be civil, implies discipline, thought, care, attention and sacrifice". Though some biographers opine that Gandhi learned of civil disobedience from Thoreau's classic essay, which he incorporated into his non-violent Satyagraha
philosophy, Gandhi in Hind Swaraj
observes that "In India the nation at large has generally used passive resistance in all departments of life. We cease to cooperate with our rulers when they displease us. Gandhi's work in South Africa
and in the Indian independence movement
was the first successful application of civil disobedience on a large scale.
In a letter to P.K.Rao, Servants of India Society dated September 10, 1935, quoted in Louis Fischer's, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi, Part I, Chapter 11, pp. 87-88, Gandhi disputes that his idea of Civil Disobedience was adapted from the writings of Thoreau.
"The statement that I had derived my idea of Civil Disobedience from the writings of Thoreau is wrong. The resistance to authority in South Africa was well advanced before I got the essay ... When I saw the title of Thoreau's great essay, I began to use his phrase to explain our struggle to the English readers. But I found that even "Civil Disobedience" failed to convey the full meaning of the struggle. I therefore adopted the phrase "Civil Resistance."
This famous movement was started by Nelson Mandela
. Mandela, along with Archbishop Desmond Tutu
and Steve Biko
advocated civil disobedience. The result can be seen in such notable events as the 1989 Purple Rain Protest
, and the Cape Town Peace March
which defied apartheid
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
, and young activists in the American
civil rights movement of the 1960s also adopted civil disobedience techniques, and antiwar
activists both during and after the Vietnam War
have done likewise. Since the 1970s, pro-life or anti-abortion groups have practiced civil disobedience against the U.S. government over the issue of legalized abortion
, and other pro-democracy activists in the Thailand
pro-democracy and anti-Thai Rak Thai movement begun in 2005 have adopted civil disobedience techniques to oust former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. As of 27 August 2008,Sondhi and either other PAD leaders have had arrest warrants issued against them for what they view as civil disobedience.
Many who practice civil disobedience do so out of religious faith
, and clergy often participate in or lead actions of civil disobedience. A notable example is Philip Berrigan
, a one-time Roman Catholic
priest who was arrested dozens of times in acts of civil disobedience in antiwar protests. Also, groups like Soulforce
, who favor non-discrimination and equal rights for gays and lesbians, have engaged in acts of civil disobedience to change church positions and public policy. "Operation Rescue" was an ecumenical Christian movement exercising civil disobedience to peacefully block access to abortion clinics.