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Civil disobedience

Civil disobedience is a specific form of disobedience and constitutes a supposed breach of the law, norms, order, regulations or other rules constructed by humans. It is carried out without (the threat of) violence towards others – at least not physical injury – and where at least a few actors take personal responsibility in public for their actions, since they do not view their actions as a (serious) crime, at least not in a moral sense.

As an ‘alleged crime’ or challenge to the established ‘right’, civil disobedience involves the members of the affected social community giving serious consideration to their reasons for interpreting the act, at least initially, as being morally or legally criminal. Thus the authorities have at the very least a suspicion that a crime has been committed, while the activists have consciously taken that risk, with no certainty of the outcome.

Defining civil disobedience purely as a crime in the legal sense and not, as here, as a social concept of something that may be a crime (with a risk of being convicted), one ends up in the peculiar position whereby actions that receive an acquittal in court (which sometimes happens) suddenly no longer constitute ‘civil disobedience’. That would mean that the activists’ successful actions – those where they convince others, even the courts, that the action was right – suddenly become something else. This leads to a conceptual dilemma in which activists’ successful civil disobedience cannot be called civil disobedience.

It is important to distinguish between disobedience against legitimate and illegitimate rules – that is, rules that have or do not have the support of the affected population. As a challenge of the legitimacy of rules, nonviolent disobedience against rules that are perceived as legitimate in a certain community will be more difficult to sustain or defend or for it to gain recognition.

A common opinion is that norms are legitimate rules in a group while laws and other regulations are not necessarily legitimate. Yet the fact is that norms may also be illegitimate. The German sociologist Jürgen Habermas claims that the legitimacy of norms presupposes that they can be questioned and examined. Moreover, a breach of rules might also occur as a consequence of an action: that is to say, in cases where the infringement itself is not a goal, but arises as the activists try to achieve something else. An action group that blocks the WTO’s conference building in Seattle is not necessarily against the USA’s ordinance prohibiting sitting on a motorway.

Likewise, there is a difference between disobedience against a single rule and against a regulatory regime (a government) and its constitution, as a crime against a rule can be supported by other rules while an infringement of a community’s (legitimate) ordinance can hardly gain support from the relevant community (although it can be supported by other social communities with other regulatory regimes).

Civil disobedience has been utilized by many different groups in history, all being contentious and criticized at the time, many getting the acclaim of mainstream society afterwards, as e.g. the civil rights movement in the USA or the Suffragettes in the UK.

Usually activists that make civil disobedience defend their acts by referring to (1) Natural rights/law, (2) God (“divine obedience”), (3) Absolute Human Rights, (4) Individual Conscience, (5) Political Situation (no other possibility exist to act for change), (6) Democratization (the idea that democracy evolves from critique and deliberation).