The world is now again made witness to a wave of international protests, sparked by violent protests by Tibetan secessionists and their repression by the Chinese government. Everywhere in the world, these acts of assembly and disobedience are criticized or hailed as acts of free expression based on the then-current sentiment. Many times, these same democracies that hails the voice of liberty and sound judgment and rule, condemn protests and demands for redress as anarchistic in character and break the order and thus inconvenience the public.
Generally, if without the backing of any government, a protest is localized, and belittled as an act of unnecessary activism. Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, Jr. , though living in different periods of history, fought under similar demeaning circumstances, and faced similar opposition from their government. They asserted that the act of civil disobedience was a God-given right granted to people to correct the fatal defects of government. Their separate acts of defiance were considered illegitimately born, with malicious intent, and unwise and untimely; these same categories echo now in the criticisms of our movements.
For their sakes, then: what constitutes a valid exercise of the Peoples will? Studying Thoreau and Kings works, that is, on the Duty of Civil Disobedience and Letter to a Birmingham Jail, respectively, we can identify two primary characters of a legitimated act of defiance: a legitimated cause and legitimated means. Legitimated Cause Why did we choose the term legitimated rather than legitimate or lawful, in characterizing a valid act of the people?
This is due to the fact that the act of defiance, seeks as its purpose the overthrow of the unjust system of government. In Martin Luther Kings time, this was the segregation between whites and blacks, which though inherently unjust, was nevertheless valid under passage of law. If one were to require a lawful cause, it would bar any protest against any injustice that is protected under the mantle of law. The cause is legitimated not because of its opposition to any system, but because the system lost its mantle of legitimacy by its promotion of injustice.
Thoreau wrote that if a system causes some injustice to be inflicted though it is merely incidental in its application, one would be unjust to apply a level of severity to attack it, for eventually the system will soon be smoothened out and these flaws corrected. If, however, the system compels one to cause injustice to another, then the system may be validly attacked. This is to say that in all governments, flaws are to be expected”in fact, the imperfection of the system of government lies within the need, at all, of a system of government.
In view of this, Thoreau stressed not the need for a no-government, as he believes the people to be unprepared for this event, but at once a better government, which does not promote injustice and does not speak for the stronger few. The legitimated cause of a civil disobedience is dependent on the measure of injustice inflicted by the present system of government the act is made to oppose. King further elucidated this by expounding on St. Thomas Aquinas expression that an unjust law is no law.
There are two ways by which a law is made unjust: if it is made contrary to natural and divine law, or, if in consonance to it, it is implemented as to make it unjust. A government, then, that enacts a law ordering the execution of every second son of every family violates the natural law against murder, promotes its agent to violate the same, and is consequently unjust. Likewise, if a government would inflict a severe punishment for the infidelity of a wife yet will only inflict a punitive penalty for the same committed by the husband, by virtue of its disproportionate application of justice the government would likewise be unjust.
This injustice, then, must be inherent within the system, and so prevalent as to inflict the severity of oppression. If, however, the system is merely suffering momentary lapses of injustice that are incidental to its improper application, the system could be corrected without the use for excessive violence, and hence, disobedience. For example, a government erroneously enacts laws as to regulate traffic when in effect such traffic is worsened; this is no cause for civil disobedience.
If however, the same law was enacted to provide for a path reserved for white people, as opposed to those of other races, then the system is inherently unjust. Legitimated Means The qualifying word legitimated is also as important here as it was in qualifying the proper cause. For any act of civil disobedience to a system is, by nature, unlawful; as paramount to a governments duty is to make sure that its people will follow laws, however unjust it may seem to be. Dura lex, sed lex. The law, however harsh in its implementation, remains the law.
Besides, which, it is in the governments best interest that these laws are followed, as these inherently perpetuate their power. King opined that oppressors, in light of historical precedent, would not voluntarily give up their power. Nevertheless, the act of disobedience is legitimated in light of the injustice inflicted. As Thoreau explained, when something is stolen from a man, or injustice inflicted on him, he will not content himself with exhausting all lawful procedures provided for him by law; he will only be satisfied upon the return of the stolen item, and consequently his vindication.
The two civil advocates differ only in the interpretation of the purpose of legitimated means: Henry David Thoreau, believing fully that the State is unjust from its inception, considers his act (in this case, the non-payment of a poll tax) as one of exclusion; he will not be part of a system that promotes injustice, in this context the propagation of slavery and the aggression inflicted on the Mexican War.
King, however, considers this act of civil disobedience as an act of inclusion, and recognizes its unlawful nature and is willing to suffer its consequences. In this act, however, he hopes to unmask the oppressiveness of the system and its persecution of the advocates of equality and free expression. This distinction is further substantiated in Kings denunciation of two other camps: one that would do nothing in the face of oppression, and another that would set itself against the State and employ violent action.
A proper legitimated means is one that will exhaust methods of petition provided by the State, and, having been refused, act in defiance of the system in order to promote tension and force the State to negotiate. This formula of defiance has been employed by the likes of Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi and Aung San Suu Kyi. Conclusion: Not a Choice, but an Obligation. A final word remains of civil disobedience: Thoreau warns that those who do not stand in opposition to a system that promotes injustice will necessarily aid it, and participate in it.
This is the concept of collective guilt”the nation is naturally responsible for excesses inflicted upon it by the government, in their silent acquiescence to its measures. Those criticizing the untimeliness and impropriety of civil disobedience can well be reminded Kings remarks that a revolution, and an act of civil rights will never be timely, and will never be proper in the eyes of the oppressive government.
Those who passively let their rights be trampled upon are equally guilty of the oppression inflicted on them. This is a harsh truth, but it remains the truth: the State will not provide for an individual who sleeps on his rights. So long as the people are deficient in fighting for their cause, the State will, by virtue of the previous maxim, take what it can in the name of the few and escape with impunity.