DuVall summarises the American abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s thought: ‘if submission were replaced by civil resistance, the people could pierce the shroud of oppression, shifting power in a way that few in the world would have comprehended.’ The starting point for civil disobedience is injustice. However, the question always placed at the feet of those who resist by breaking the law, is whether such acts can ever be right. Civil disobedience became a major question for political theory in the US in the sixties and seventies. I want to suggest that two of the issues raised in that debate can usefully be drawn out here. Firstly, there is the question of whether civil disobedience is non-violent by definition. And secondly, there is the question of whether civil disobedience requires a sort of existential choice between security and order. (For further discussion of these points and more, see ‘The Defense of Conscience – A Limited Right to Resist’, which this piece draws upon).
Let me begin with the definitional debate. Bedau states ‘Anyone commits an act of civil disobedience if and only if he acts illegally, publicly, non-violently, and conscientiously with the intent to frustrate (one of) the laws, policies, or decisions of his government.’ Rawls similarly defines it as a ‘public, non-violent, conscientious act’ contrary to the law, but designed to change existing laws or policies. These authors place non-violence as the sine qua non of civil disobedience: ‘Whether the use of violence in the prosecution of a civil disobedience campaign is tactically unwise, and whether it is morally objectionable, both seem to be clear substantive questions which can be asked about how a civil disobedient should behave, and not to be questions about what civil disobedience is.’ Woozley argues that it is a mistake to considering (non-)violence as a definitional issue for civil disobedience. He asserts that the mistake is explained by three factors: Firstly, ‘the most prominent and influential practitioners of civil disobedience have also been practitioners of non-violence.’( Woozley, p325). Secondly, violence, when publicised will often lead to the alienation of the public, which essentially defeats the purpose of civil disobedience, which is to unite the people behind the cause. Thirdly, violence is no way to show loyalty to the system which civil disobedience professes.
While the current student protests in the UK and Ireland, or the anti-G20 demonstrations in 2009 should not be equated with civil disobedience, as they are entirely within their rights to protest. Any violence on the side of the protestors is latched upon in the media in order to delegitimize their actions. In the UK the kettle, as a policing tactic, whether intentionally or not, brings people to the boil. Their anger tends to spill out on the streets. There have even been questions about whether the police have sought to encourage the spectacle of violence in last weeks student march, by leaving an old police without plates in the middle of where the protestors were kettled. In the media, the paradigm of a peaceful action is held forth. However, many I have talked to in the current round of protest have mentioned the utter failure of the peaceful protests against the Iraq invasion. This failure has become a mobilising force. If over a million on the streets cannot convince a labour government to change its foreign policy, 50,000 students will not convince an ideologically driven con-lib coalition by simply marching en masse. There must be something more. The question of whether minor illegality can be used to challenge major wrong stands as one of the most important aspects of the debate. Many that I have talked to suggest that to them it is a question of tactics rather than morality.
The second problem that is often raised against the civil disobedient is that if everyone followed their precedent society would fall apart. The problem that the liberals theorists in the sixties saw was that civil disobedience weakened the ‘habitual obedience to the law.’ (Bedau p655). A major flash-point was Dr. Martin Luther King’s encouragement of civil disobedience. Waldman attacked the use of civil disobedience in the fight to end segregation. He asserted a slippery slope argument, utilising the universalisation principle. The slippery slope argument consists of the assertion that once one group’s use of civil disobedience is legitimated or legalised, then all will (correctly or not) use it as a precedent and so society will disintegrate. Waldman looked at all of the potential interest groups who could possibly use similar rationales, particularly unions, and rhetorically asserts that the economic well-being of the US was dependant on unions not tapping into the power of civil disobedience. The universalisation principle is a serious issue for civil disobedience. There are essentially two elements to it (rational and empirical); must the (dis)obedience choice be universalised, and does such a universalisation result in the disintegration of society. Rawls asserts the principle in a coherent fashion; ‘civil disobedience should be restricted to those cases where the dissenter is willing to affirm that everyone else similarly subjected to the same degree of injustice has the right to protest in a similar way.’ (Rawls, p250). Waldman asserts that ‘as Dr. King must know, civil disobedience cannot end with Negros alone. You cannot build a fence around this kind of program. Other people become involved.’ (Waldman, p110). Thus, apparently Dr. King must accept that all others must be allowed to similarly disobey. Waldman then goes on to assert that if such a right were universalised, ‘what would happen to our country, to our industries, to our commerce, to our trade, to our existence as a civilised community?… where would our nation be? Where would our freedom be? Where would our civil rights be?’ (Waldman, p110). If all are allowed to disobey, society will disintegrate. ‘The alternatives are obeying the law and general disobedience. The choice is between social order and chaos.’(Wasserstrom in Bedau, p256).
This type of reasoning was used to render a stark choice. In a ‘rational and civilised’ society there can be no space for a disobedient. Thus, you either quietly protested, or rendered yourself a revolutionary, and went to jail for a long time. We hear the same reasoning in Ireland today: Anyone that challenges the law must be punished. As the economic catastrophe hits home, this question comes squarely to the fore. The question now stands: How are we to resist the further destruction of Ireland. We hope the blog carnival today will add to this discussion.
 Bedau, H, A, ‘On Civil Disobedience,’ The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 58, No. 21, 1961, p653.
 Rawls, J, ‘The justification of Civil Disobedience,’ in Bedau, H, A, (ed) ‘Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice,’ (MacMillan Publishing Co.: New York, 1968), p240, p246.
 Woozley, A, D, “Civil Disobedience and Punishment,” Ethics, Vol. 86, No. 4, (1976), p323, p325, see also McCloskey, H, J, “Conscientious Disobedience of the Law: its Necessity, Justification, and Problems to Which it gave Rise,” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, Vol. 40, No. 4, (1980), p536, at p537; She attributes this definitional mistake simply to the urge to distinguish civil from revolutionary disobedience.
 Waldman, L, ‘Civil Rights – Yes: Civil Disobedience – No, a Reply to Rd. Martin Luther King,’ In Bedau, H, A, ‘Civil Disobedience: Theory and Practice,’ (MacMillan Publishing Co.: New York, 1968).