The danger of civility

Also see Breaking the law

Henry David Thoreau laid the groundwork for the modern theory of civil disobedience in his 1849 essay, “Resistance to Civil Government.” Thoreau believed, simply, that a person’s conscience was a higher authority than the government. He espoused the “right to refuse allegiance to, and to resist, the government, when its tyranny or its inefficiency are great and unendurable.” Writing during a time of slavery, he recognized that what is right is not always the same as what is lawful. “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law,” he wrote, “so much as for the right. The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.”

Though Thoreau did not coin the term civil disobedience, his essay was a landmark. Gandhi said its “incisive logic is unanswerable.” Martin Luther King Jr. said of Thoreau that “no other person has been more eloquent and passionate in getting this idea [of non-cooperation with evil] across than Henry David Thoreau… . As a result of his writings and personal witness, we are the heirs of a legacy of creative protest.”

Since Thoreau’s time, civil disobedience has been used as a primary form of nonviolent resistance in countless situations and countries. At minimum, it sends a clear message that protesters mean business. In a more extreme form, it becomes almost like a game of moral chicken, in which authorities are forced to show how much force they are willing to use to suppress non-violent citizen expression. Displays of force against largely innocent citizens can undermine the moral authority of a government and shift societal power dynamics and even the course of history. – Staff

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