Friday, May 05, 2006

Civil Disobedience

Some recent discussion has focused on the issue of civil disobedience and the requirements for such an act.

In principle (and in practice) I am an admirer of those who engage in civil disobedience.

One of the most inspiring actions committed in the 20th Century was Mahatma Ghandi's 'Salt March' in 1930. The British government had passed a law making it illegal for citizens to make their own salt. They were required to purchase their salt from the British. This was an expense that few people in India could well afford. The poor people of India -- those who lived near the ocean -- could easily manufacture their own salt, if it was not against the law.

Ghandi started his protest by sending a letter to (person) stating his objections to the salt tax and demanding that it be repealed. He also told the British government that if they did not repeal the tax, then he walk to the ocean himself to manufacture salt. He told the authorities when he was going to do this, and why. The British kept their tax on salt, so on March 12th, 1930, Ghandi started his walk to the beech to manufacture salt in violation of the law.

He had to walk for more than 230 miles to get to the ocean. This took three weeks. However, that was a part of his plan. The three weeks allowed news of his protest to spread. He gave speeches in each town he walked through, and picked up additional supporters along the way. By the time he reached the shore, he had picked up a crowd of thousands. Then, he began the process of manufacturing his own salt. He told his followers to do the same.

Within a month, the British government had arrested over 60,000 people. They came in the middle of the night to arrest Ghandi. The Salt March began a general strike and boycott of all things British that imposed a high burden on the British government. Yet, they did all of this in the spirit of nonviolence.

This story illustrates the moral requirement for civil disobedience.

First, it must be civil. Blowing oneself up in a crowded theater or assassinating a political leader are not examples of civil disobedience. They are examples of criminal violence.

Second, an act of civil disobedience must be public. Somebody who cheats on his taxes or lies to get a government grant cannot claim 'civil disobedience' in defense of his actions.

Third, the person who performs the act of civil disobedience must be willing and eager to pay a cost for his actions -- including arrest and imprisonment. This is a part of his message. "I am willing to risk life, limb, and liberty in defense of this principle." In this, he shares an important trait with the soldier, who is also willing to risk life, limb, and liberty in defense of a principle.

The reason for the nonviolence is that the person who engages in civil disobedience wants to make it clear that he is not a threat to others. He wants to highlight the fact that he is defending principles that are compatible with peace. Others have nothing to be afraid of. Indeed, they have more to fear from those who oppose the person who engages in civil disobedience than the person who engages in such an act.

These are not what you would call rules, exactly. They are more like guidelines. Specific situations may dictate some reason for variation -- except there can be no variation in the principle of not doing physical harm to others.

For example, two of the most popular responses to having "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance strike me as being counter-productive.

One response, of course, is to sit it out. Yet, this delivers exactly the message that theocratic sectarians want to give -- that those who are not "under God" are also unwilling to express any type of loyalty to America as a country. In short, it says that Atheists and others with similar beliefs are un-American.

The other response, to stand and mouth the words in silence or skip over them, still gives an appearance of loyalty to the idea of one nation under God. The average person, during the Pledge, is not paying attention to the other participants. Indeed, he or she is supposed to be looking at the flag. Consequently, few if any recognize the silent protest of the person who leaves "under God" out of the pledge. To the average observer (not paying that much attention, all who stand are showing they support and endorse the doctrine of "one nation, under God."

Both of these responses have the sectarian theocrat tickled absolutely pink.

A civil disobedient act that would avoid this objection would be to sit and wait until others have said the Pledge. Then, after they have finished, stand and loudly give a pledge that does not include the words "under God." This type of act would violate the rules of the meeting. However, it does communicate the message that one is willing to pledge allegiance to the United States. At the same time, it clearly states that the agent is not in any way endorsing the theocratic pledge that the Pledge has become.

Anybody who does interfere with this option can be accused quite loudly of interfering with somebody attempting to pledge allegiance.

Yes, it takes a bit of courage to do something like this. Yet, that is a part of civil disobedience. Rest assured, it takes less courage than driving a supply truck down the streets of Baghdad, storming Normandy Beech, or standing ground on Breed's Hill. People have faced much worse in the defense of principles worth defending.


LBBP said...

I never liked the "Under God" phrase. Even when I was in grade school, and still theoretically a Christian, I would say "without God" instead of "Under God". As you mentioned, most people when saying the pledge, are barely paying attention. As a result they tend to mumble and not recite very loud. It would be easy enough to say "without God" loud enough to be heard over the mumbles of the rest. This would still be in keeping with the group but would highlight a protest against the "under God" phrase.

Of course, your version certainly would be a bigger statement and call more attention to the issue.

Mike Golenda said...

every single time I say the pledge of allegence, I subtract under god, and add one and all, and then at the end simply raise my hand and state

Liberty and justice for all

Anonymous said...

the same can be said for christians if "under God" was taken out... if "under God" was taken out i would stand up and say it using "under God". this is America and i believe that you should be able to believe what ever you want, and anyone can say the pledge anyway they want in my opinion, but as for me i will always say what i believe...."under God"... yes, "with liberty and justice for all." including christians

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Yes, and a Nazi can stand up and say "one Ayrian nation" if he so chooses. His right to freedom of speech gives him permission to do so.

However, that does not make the Nazi a good person.

My objection is to the claim that an atheist is the moral and patriotic equivalent of one who would support rebellion, tyranny, and injustice. This type of generic insulting of people who do not deserve it is no different than the Nazi insulting the Jew by pledging allegiance to an Ayrian nation.