Political Protest And Civil Disobedience Research Paper

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Political protest refers to a multitude of methods used by individuals and groups within a political system to express their dissatisfaction with the status quo. Although protest can be registered through voting, letter writing, campaign contributions, participation in interest groups and political parties, and other traditional means, the term more commonly refers to those kinds of mass political activism that occur outside of conventional parliamentary channels, such as demonstrations and marches, sit-ins, blockades, labor stoppages, boycotts, and other methods that combine communication and persuasion, direct action, and noncooperation with political, economic, and social institutions.

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Much social science research on political protest has concentrated on explaining organized, sustained forms of mass collective action such as social movements. A social movement consists of an array of organizations and individuals who share a common identity and agenda of social and political goals, and who are regarded as a collective entity by other political actors. Social movements typically pursue their goals by mixing protest actions with conventional political strategies such as lobbying, litigation, public education, and electoral mobilization. Discontented groups often resort to direct action when they are denied equal access to conventional means of participation or when such avenues are regarded to be ineffectual or inadequate for registering the intensity of their grievances. Theoretical and empirical studies of political protest have analyzed the emergence of group consciousness and solidarity, the framing of grievances, the role of social networks and community institutions in fostering cooperation, the formation of social movement organizations, the psychological make-up and motivations of individuals who engage in protest, the evolution of strategy and tactics in social movements, the influence of changing political opportunities on the course of a movement, and the efficacy of violent and nonviolent methods of protest.

Unlike protest marches, picketing, and other kinds of legal protest, civil disobedience is a particular form of political protest that is marked by the deliberate violation of the law for social purposes. Civil disobedience is not merely conscious law breaking, but rather it is law breaking with the express goal of correcting a perceived injustice. Action that would now be regarded as civil disobedience has been a regular feature of social protest throughout history even though the term itself, attributed to an 1849 essay by Henry David Thoreau, is a relatively recent creation.

The act of civil disobedience is fundamentally an act of political protest because the noncompliance is intended to convey a message of discontent to the government, media, and public. The acts of defiance are typically overt, public acts aimed at marshaling collective opposition to unjust or unconstitutional laws and policies. Civil disobedience is not restricted to protests over laws and public policies, but is also employed against the practices of private institutions such as corporations and universities, as occurred for example in the divestment campaign on American university campuses in the early 1980s, which pressured universities (both private and public) to cut their financial ties to companies that conducted business in South Africa in an effort to bring an end to apartheid.

1. Forms Of Civil Disobedience

Within this broad conceptualization, civil disobedience can emanate from different motivations and assume a number of forms. Civil disobedience can be active or passive, direct or indirect. An individual can either actively commit a prohibited act or passively refuse to conform to a prescribed action. For example, an anti-war protester may destroy his draft card or, alternatively, he may refuse to register for the draft. Both actions qualify as civil disobedience because the protester intentionally violates the law as an expression of his opposition to the war, knowing the legal consequences of his actions. Thoreau himself engaged in a form of passive civil disobedience when he chose to register his opposition to the institution of slavery by refusing to pay the Massachusetts state poll tax.

Civil disobedients often break laws that are unrelated to the law or policy they are protesting. For example, peace activists who disrupt operations at defense laboratories are not protesting laws against trespassing, but are using civil disobedience to dramatize their opposition to nuclear weapons. Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas objected to the indirect use of civil disobedience on the grounds that it would give licence to people to break any law they wished in the service of a goal that they perceived to be more noble. But few scholars have subscribed to this restriction because, on many issues, there is no feasible direct method to engage in civil disobedience. There may, for example, be no direct method by which activists can use civil disobedience to protest the government’s foreign policy or its failure to pass laws addressing issues of inequality and poverty.

A narrower definition of civil disobedience would exclude illegal actions taken by individuals who do not accept the constitutionality of the law they are violating. By this definition, an activist who breaks the law by setting fire to the American flag is not engaging in civil disobedience if he believes that his actions are protected by the First Amendment, but a flag burner who accepts the constitutionality of a law against flag burning is engaging in civil disobedience. For the purpose of defining civil disobedience, however, it may be unnecessary to make such a distinction based on the activist’s frame of mind, because the crucial assumption underlying civil disobedience is that the law being broken is generally viewed to be valid by those in authority, so the actions of the civil disobedient are generally viewed to be illegal. Therefore, both flag burners are committing civil disobedience in the sense that they are breaking what is generally understood to be the law in an effort to change it, and the main difference between them is whether they are appealing to the courts or to the executive and legislature for remedial action.

Although Thoreau assumed that ‘civil’ protest would be conducted in an orderly and peaceful fashion, scholars disagree over whether civil disobedience is necessarily nonviolent by definition. Some commentators insist that civil disobedience must be nonviolent or else it cannot be distinguished from rebellion, rioting, and other types of violent direct action. The two individuals who are most responsible for the association of civil disobedience with nonviolence are Mohandas Gandhi (see e.g., Gandhi 1961) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (see e.g., King 1964). Indeed, contemporary understandings of civil disobedience have been substantially shaped by the mass campaigns for equal rights organized by Gandhi in South Africa and India and by King in the United States.

Both Gandhi and King possessed the extraordinary combination of political ‘savvy’ and unwavering moral and spiritual commitment to the philosophy of nonviolence. In his teachings, Gandhi insisted that civil disobedients must scrupulously obey laws that are unrelated to the target of the disobedience campaign and submit themselves to the punishment of the state for breaking a law they believed to be unjust. Civil disobedients do not flee or resist arrest, for in accepting penalties for their actions, they bring attention to the injustice they wish to correct and arouse the sense of injustice in others. Gandhi’s concept of satyagraha or ‘truth-force’ refers to the moral conversion of one’s adversary. In their quiet suffering, civil disobedients demonstrate their honor and integrity and their capacity to differentiate between just and unjust laws.

King regarded Gandhi as his mentor and shared his belief that the purpose of civil disobedience is to persuade the state and its citizens that an existing law violates a higher moral principle. Violence, therefore, must be avoided because it potentially undermines the communicative intent of civil disobedience. Adherence to nonviolence, on the other hand, indicates that one bears no malice or hatred for one’s opponent. Like Gandhi, King believed that the ultimate goal of a campaign of nonviolent protest is to achieve a new moral understanding with one’s opponents. Nonviolent resistance works, not by defeating and humiliating the opponent, but by winning the opponent’s empathy and friendship.

2. Justification Of Civil Disobedience

In addition to disagreements over what kinds of actions qualify as civil disobedience, there is debate over the circumstances in which civil disobedience can be justified. Civil disobedience raises issues about the nature of authority, obligation, and consent in society. The practice originates from the idea that a person must be true to his conscience and that he is not obligated to submit to the laws or commands of the state when they violate his conception of justice. Civil disobedience therefore assumes both a right to individual freedom and the existence of a natural law that takes precedence over civil law.

Philosophical discussions of the justification for civil disobedience generally fall between legal absolutism and moral individualism. In justifying civil disobedience, it is necessary to accept that there are standards against which governments can be evaluated, and that citizens have the right to exercise such judgments. Few would argue that the law must always be obeyed; and similarly, few would contend that obeying the law is entirely a matter of individual judgment about what is morally right and wrong. One extreme supports despotic governments, while the other suggests anarchy. Whether civil disobedience undermines respect for the law is a matter for empirical inquiry. The penalties for breaking the law are usually sufficiently great that it is unlikely that people will engage in civil disobedience unless they are intensely motivated by a sense of injustice.

But do the moral criteria for civil disobedience reside only in conscience? Or are there intersubjective criteria that permit rational assessment of the morality of a law or policy? Without such objective criteria, we are in danger of every individual invoking arbitrary subjective criteria for disobeying different laws. We invite moral anarchy unless there are some agreedupon criteria for evaluating whether a law or policy is unjust or immoral. At a minimum, the civil disobedient must be able to demonstrate that the law or policy violates principles of welfare, equality, or justice. The law or policy must be shown either to do more harm than good, to distribute benefits unequally, or to operate without the consent of certain groups. Legal methods of petition to change the law must be tried first, and the activists must grant the same rights of civil disobedience to others who believe that another law is unjust. Some would argue that the civil disobedient must also have a reasonable chance of overturning the law. According to these normative criteria, only those who believe in reciprocity and adhere to a sophisticated set of general rules of political conduct can rightfully be said to be engaged in justifiable acts of civil disobedience.

3. Effectiveness Of Civil Disobedience

What are the mechanisms that make civil disobedience effective in practice? Gandhi recognized that civil disobedience could not be effectively employed for a global, distant goal such as national independence, but had to be used for specific, local issues on which the opposition had the power to compromise and make concessions. True to form, civil disobedience campaigns led by Gandhi were most successfully applied in local disputes concerning such issues as land revenue assessments and mill workers’ wages, in which small numbers of close knit, disciplined protesters were united by their interest in the issue and capable of conforming to a norm of nonviolence.

In theory, if civil disobedience is to work through persuasion, then the protesters must invoke principles or values that are shared by a large proportion of the population. In practice, however, the preferences that are converted are more likely to be those of the spectators to the conflict than those of the adversaries of the protesters. A small number of disobedients can seldom, by their actions alone, render a law inoperative, but they may be able to disrupt the social order sufficiently to draw public attention to their grievances. Although Gandhi believed that the suffering of protesters in jail would apply pressure on the government, he also recognized that the state’s use of violence would serve the interests of the protesters by influencing third parties who were witnesses to the conflict. British repression of Indian dissenters confirmed to onlookers that the British ruled by force and not through the consent of the Indian population. Similarly, in the course of the civil rights movement, it was the contrast between the nonviolent protesters and the violent response of the southern police that helped to galvanize public opinion and mobilize federal government intervention in support of racial equality.

In response to a campaign of civil disobedience, the defenders of the status quo must decide whether to offer concessions to the protesters or to escalate the conflict by using force or summoning the power of the state. It is the threat of continued disruption of the normal operations of business and government that ‘persuades’ the targets of the protest to negotiate with the activists and to yield to their demands. During the civil rights movement, the early success of direct action campaigns in some southern cities aimed at forcing businesses to provide equal treatment to blacks made it easier for similar campaigns to succeed elsewhere because businesses foresaw the normal course of these protests and sought to cut their losses sooner rather than later. There is little evidence that the attitudes of white southerners were converted by direct action; indeed, the attitudes of many were hardened by the confrontational tactics of the movement.

Civil disobedience thus rarely works through persuasion and attitude change alone, but also depends significantly on pressure and coercion. Actions that are aimed at transforming preferences may leave attitudes unchanged, but still be effective at promoting social change because the opponents are pragmatic enough to calculate that they are better off making concessions than dealing with the disorder created by continual protests. Civil disobedience in this respect resembles a pragmatic tactic within a repertoire of potential strategies that are available to a protest group rather than an option that is resorted to only when the conventional channels of participation have been exhausted.


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