Civil disobedience occurs when an individual or group refuses to follow the rules, policies, or legislation passed by their government. It may involve violence, but most forms of civil disobedience involve non-violent protests and actions. There must be a goal to change the minds of others or the opinions of legislatures for decisions to be classified under the banner of this subject.
An act of civil disobedience places the individual at a higher risk of repercussion. Most acts which are classified under this subject violate laws at some level. Individuals could find themselves arrested because of their actions, shamed through print and social media, or confronted with force by law enforcement.
These significant pros and cons of civil disobedience allow for a fair overview of such actions, as it does become necessary from time to time for the general public to rise up against an unjust government.
As Henry David Thoreau once penned, “Unjust laws exist. Shall we be content to obey them? Or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded? Or shall we transgress them at once?”
List of the Pros of Civil Disobedience
1. Acts of civil disobedience work to protect individual rights.
Actions of civil disobedience will wax and wane over time because people are attracted to specific causes. When someone feels as if a specific right of theirs is being trampled upon, then they join up with others who feel the same way to do something about the issue. People who have disobeyed civil authority have stopped cruel and unusual punishment in the past, prevented ongoing segregation, challenged literary censors, and protected individualized rights of privacy and freedom.
2. It provides another check and balance in the framework of society.
The United States prevents government control through the use of checks and balances through the three branches of government. By limiting the power of each one, the chances of a tyrant coming to power after an election are minimal.
Acts of civil disobedience provide another check and balance on that system. Although these acts are informal, they also prevent a government from going too far in its acts of suppression.
3. Civil disobedience establishes religious freedoms.
Over the years, acts of civil disobedience have helped to shape how the world perceives religion and spirituality. Acts by Christian business owners, for example, refusing to offer baked goods or catering services to those that live an “alternative lifestyle” offer a recent example of what decisions like this can do. By refusing to follow their stated promise to serve everyone, they look to shape their personal faith and that of others who share their perspective into something which is meaningful for them.
When faith becomes part of the civil disobedience process, a government struggles to stand. If people feel that God wants their government to fall, it’s difficult to debate that perspective. Who can argue with a supernatural deity?
4. It protects the rights of the minority population groups in society.
Civil disobedience is a way for the ethnic and cultural minorities to ensure their voice is heard in the national political debate. People from the majority can use this tool to promote awareness of critical issues facing these groups too. The goal of any act which falls under this banner is to improve the life of someone, in some way, because the participants see the government as doing the opposite. Every action which involves civil disobedience seeks to prevent the majority from having tyranny over the fundamental liberties of the minority.
5. Civil disobedience works to ensure fairness for each person.
There will always be people who disobey civilly because it is “fun” or it “gives them a thrill.” Those who engage in such an action don’t believe in the abolishment of laws or the granting of special exceptions for some people. They simply want reasonable and just enforcement of laws which allow everyone to have the same shot at success, no matter what their socioeconomic background happens to be.
A U.S. perspective might be that everyone should receive a fair trial, and all rights of due process, because the Bill of Rights guarantees that should happen. If a government body attempts to refuse those rights, then acts of civil disobedience can help to restore balance to the system.
6. It is a check and balance which doesn’t go away.
Since 1920, there have been 18 different presidents who served the United States in the White House. Each came and went, history judging some to be better than others. Throughout that time, the movements of civil disobedience have always remained present in society. Even Supreme Court justices who serve life terms cannot outlive the actions of a household who passes along their own definitions of morality, spirituality, and justice to each generation.
The passions pursued through these actions offer an independent voice to a country which often needs to hear a different perspective. When a society embraces diversity, it becomes stronger because of it. That happens because governments come and go, but it is the family who never changes.
7. Civil disobedience allows someone to follow their conscience.
Governments exist because they form social contracts with the general population. In exchange for defense, social needs, or other benefits provided to all, they are allowed to govern through consent. When the individuals in government place their own welfare above those they’re called to protect, then one way to restore the balance of the social contract is through civil disobedience. People tend to make a choice to disobey when they feel like other people are benefiting from what the government offers more than them.
8. It provides evidence that social injustice occurs in society.
The actions taken to stop the Occupy movement when it spread from Wall Street helped galvanize more support for it. When mass arrests were made on the Brooklyn Bridge, more people signed up to take on the cause. Law enforcement evicted people from a camp in Oakland, which turned the acts of civil disobedience toward college campuses. Then peaceful students were pepper-sprayed by officers at the University of California-Davis, further reinforcing how people felt.
The issue with civil disobedience is that it lays bare the issues which society doesn’t want to see. People seek out excuses for the response to peaceful protest because they don’t want their lives to become uncomfortable. Authentic actions of civil disobedience eventually create evidence of the social injustices which exist in society. It’s up to the rest of the population to then decide which side they’ll support.
9. Civil disobedience is possible at any age.
Youth in the United States do not have the right to vote. That means the only way their voice is heard sometimes is through the civil disobedience process. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s saw young adults, teens, and even children to the marches that were held. These kids were sometimes imprisoned with the adults for their participation. It was an exciting time or many because they believed as a generation, they’d be able to change things for the better.
Freeman Hrabowski was only 12 when he marched in the Birmingham Children’s Crusade in 1963. He did so because the thought of competing in mathematics against white children excited him. Hrabowski was arrested during the march, and images of dogs and police officers attacking the children drew global scorn. Although there is always a physical risk involved with civil disobedience, anyone at any age can create the change they wish to see in the world.
List of the Cons of Civil Disobedience
1. Civil disobedience attempts to shape the morality of a nation.
Acts of civil disobedience sometimes defend equality, but it would be more accurate to say that it tries to shape or impose specific moral views on all individuals within a country. People are committed to their individual definitions of what “right” and “wrong” mean to them. Instead of permitting other people to pursue their own priorities with whatever freedoms are permitted, being disobedient on a civil level tells others that they are wrong and those participating are in the right.
2. It is a choice which invariably hurts others in some way.
Violent acts of civil disobedience can physically harm others. Destructive elements within these actions may damage property, reduce the reputation of a business, or restrict access for consumers to conduct business. Each May Day in Seattle (since 2012) brings about the threat of destruction and disruption to the city. Windows get smashed, people are sometimes confronted, and arrests are often made.
Whenever someone chooses to disobey the laws of the government, either they or someone who gets in their way will be hurt physically, emotionally, or financially. It then becomes up to history to determine who stood in the correct moral position.
3. Civil disobedience can force the will of the minority on the majority.
The basic tenet of a democracy is that the majority holds power on each issue. Negotiations, coalitions, and agreements create a group which makes decisions for the society based on the voting will of the general public. Acts of civil disobedience change this dynamic because those participating, either through violence or non-violence, seek to change this structure. They want the voice of the minority to take precedence over the will of the majority.
There are times when such an action does become necessary. Slavery, segregation, and women’s suffrage are all examples of how society changes when people come together to stop what they see as a moral injustice. If a government system regularly sides with the minority, however, it creates an effect which is opposite of what democratic structures offer.
4. It changes the perception of disobedience in society.
Since the 1980s, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are viewed as being overly supportive of criminals and activists instead of the majority in society. Some people refer to the organization as a “lobby of criminals.” If an individual decides to disobey, for any reason, then those who make a different decision create opinions about the reasons why. Families often get ripped apart because one side sees the act of disobedience as a way to protect rights, while the other half sees the action as an effort to take rights away.
Even Jesus acknowledged this disadvantage when discussing how family dynamics would change when belief systems changed in Luke 12. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three.”
5. Civil disobedience often creates an impression of bias.
The ACLU provides us with another example of this disadvantage of civil disobedience. The organization often describes itself as being a “guardian of liberty” for the United States. Because they take up far-left, often progressive causes for defense, people outside of the groups it represents see it as a defender of only a few instead of helping everyone maintain the rights given to them by the government.
People tend to see actions through their own rose-colored glasses, whether participating in civil disobedience or refraining from it. The ACLU has defended thousands of cases where Christians had their religious rights threatened too, including the right of an elementary-school student to read the Bible during a free-reading time at school.
6. Acts of civil disobedience are often seen as being politically favorable to one specific group.
When the Occupy Wall Street movement began in September 2011, it created a worldwide movement which fought to stop global economic inequality. If you look up the history of this action online, most websites call it a “progressive” protest. Progressivism in the United States is usually associated with being on the left of the political spectrum. That means the average American would see or learn that Democrats were the primary participants involved.
There were Republicans at these protests. Conservatives who were unhappy with the state of economic affairs at the time participated too. Entire perspectives shift from the outside because of one association point, which is seen as politically favorable to one party or group instead of being looked at as the complex issue it tends to be.
7. It can be used to promote unjust causes.
The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA include groups associated with neo-fascists, white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and the hard elements of the alt-right. Many protesters chanted slogans which were anti-Semitic or racist in their wording and town. Some carried Nazi symbols and elements of anti-Muslim groups. The majority would declare that the oppression of others in favor of one race is not a moral position. Their acts of civil disobedience would therefore constitute an unjust cause.
When President Donald Trump didn’t denounce these statements, saying that there were “very fine” people on both sides, it gave the unjust cause added incentive to perceive itself as just. That is the danger of civil disobedience. If people in power support an unjust position, it can shift how society thinks in dangerous ways.
8. Civil disobedience can radicalize individuals.
Acts of civil disobedience may start peacefully, but it can lead toward violence through the radicalization process. Individuals become radicalized when they begin to adopt increasingly extreme ideologies from social, political, or religious viewpoints. These people then begin to plot violent acts to convince others that their moral position is strong, with the idea that others will then fall along when completed. There are different individual pathways to consider with this disadvantage, but it often leads to the same results. Hatred fuels violence, which then creates harm in some way.
9. Almost every non-violent movement turns to violence at some point.
Even Gandhi inspired violent counterparts when India was on a quest toward independence. The 1922 Chauri Chaura incident saw a group of protestors, usually non-violent, become an angry mob. Why? Because police officers fired into the unarmed crowd. A police station was eventually burned during the response with 23 individuals trapped inside. Whether the violence is triggered by a government response or a social reply, when individuals pursuing non-violent means are targeted with life-threatening harm, most will defend themselves with equal ferocity.
10. It can reinforce the opposite positions that people believe.
Even with the Civil Rights Movement changing minds in the 1960s, the actions taken by marchers and protestors helped to solidify the opposite positions others held during the time. After the Selma to Montgomery marches, which changed many minds, there were people targeted (and murdered) because of their actions or support of the cause involved. There will always be a few that become radicalized because of their support against acts of civil disobedience, just as there are those who become radicalized when seeking equal justice for everyone involved.
These significant pros and cons of civil disobedience are essential to review because not all actions taken to defy a government are violent. One can be disobedient by refusing to obey or follow specific expectations on their own. When these acts are done in ways that limit harm and promote a moral outcome most can agree upon (such as the abolition of slavery in all forms), then the results are often positive. If violence erupts, or the minority attempts to govern the majority in the same way they’re being treated, then civil disobedience can move society closer to conflict instead of away from it.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.