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The Controversial Question of the Use of Civil Disobedience as a Method of Protest in a Democracy

Acceptable Methods of Protest in America

The United States of America is a country that is run by a democratic government, in order to protect the rights and liberties of the citizens in its discourse community. When social issues arise, citizens have the right to protest and share their opinions on the matter, due to freedom of speech. However, those who protest must not infringe on the rights of others or they would be breaking the law. There are many different methods of protest that have been used throughout history, including non-violent acts such as petitions, stickers, songs, boycotts, strikes, sit-ins, marching, and memes. Other forms of protest include violent acts such as bombs, terrorism, murder, and destruction of property. Both forms of protest, violent and non-violent, are used to change laws and social norms. However, the most commonly used method of protest is known as civil disobedience. Civil disobedience is a form of non-violent protest used to change, or bring awareness toward an unjust law, or the need of a new law. Those who follow this form of protest often break laws, or infringe on the rights of others, when supporting their cause. This is a common problem among discourse communities and brings the question, “Is civil disobedience an acceptable method of protest in a democracy?” Many authoritative sources such as Plato, Martin Luther King, and Van Dusen have differing opinions on this problem, just like the common population of Americans.

Civil disobedience has been seen throughout history during protests such as the Boston Tea Party, American Revolution, Women’s Suffrage Movement, and LGBT rights movement. However, one of the earliest examples of civil disobedience occurred when the philosopher Socrates was imprisoned, due to his controversial teachings of youth in Athens. Socrates decided to remain in his prison cell, even though many arguments were made against it by his friend, Crito. Socrates made many points to support his decision against civil disobedience, such as the ideas of a social contract, utilitarianism, and self-interest. He stated that obeying the government would be for the greater good, because disobeying it would destroy its authority and that would cause greater problems for the Athenian citizens. Obedience toward the government is needed for its function and laws to be valid. If rules were to be ignored, than the government’s functions would be without point and their consequences would not be respected. Socrates explained that it is never okay to break a law made by the government, because it would harm everyone involved, directly and indirectly. As a citizen of Athens, he was educated, nurtured, and protected; therefore he must follow all rules and regulations of the government.

In Plato’s “Crito,” Socrates explains that “Anyone who does not like us and the city, and who wants to emigrate to a colony or to any other city, may go where he likes, retaining his property. But he who has experience of the manner in which we order justice and administer the state, and still remains, has entered into an implied contract that he will do as we command him” (254). If Socrates did not respect the laws of the Athenian government, he had the option of moving somewhere else. However, he stayed as a citizen of Athens and was expected to follow the laws and accept the consequences of breaking them. Socrates, as a law-abiding citizen of Athens, decided to accept the resulting consequence of his crimes, the death penalty. If he were to have escaped from jail, he would have had set a bad example for his students, and been ridiculed by his fellow Athenians, because he would have become a fugitive to the government that protected him during his life. Civil disobedience was not chosen in this situation, because Socrates respected the consequences of his crimes and accepted responsibility for what he had done.

Martin Luther King Jr. was an active promoter of civil disobedience during his protests for racial equality in America. He argued that civil disobedience was needed as a way to prevent violence, while urging the change of oppressive laws in society. He explained that breaking unjust laws is an acceptable action if it is done in a respectful manner, and the penalty for the disobedience is paid without conflict. King used civil disobedience to call attention to unjust segregation laws, as well as convince his fellow clergyman of the way they oppressed much of the population.

In “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Martin Luther King explained to the clergyman that the time to change the segregation laws was now and not later when it seemed convenient. They believed that change would occur in time, and that it was not a good idea to push for change before its time. King believed that the time for change was now, and realized that there were many official steps that should be taken before civil disobedience would become a logical option. King stated that “In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: (1) collection of the facts to determine whether injustices are alive, (2) negotiation, (3) self-purification, and (4) direct action. We have gone through all of these steps in Birmingham” (280). King accessed whether racial inequality was strong in Birmingham and tried to make changes through conversations with those of authority and took legal actions. King tried to negotiate with merchants, so that they would take down their humiliating signs from stores, but the merchants declined to make the change. However, none of these options worked, so King decided that civil disobedience was the next logical step to make a change in America’s oppressive racial laws.

Lewis Van Dusen Jr. had a distinguished career in law, military service, and writing. He explained both sides of disobedience, from the side of the law, as well as the side of the protestors. Protestors see it as a peaceful protest, while lawmakers see it as a deliberate form of disobedience to the government. Van Dusen explains that civil disobedience is done with good intentions, but it degrades the government’s democratic system. When protestors try to take the law into their own hands, illegal actions infringe upon the rights of others and disrupt the natural democratic process. The techniques protestors use send out the message that America’s justice system is not functioning, and that the government has failed in its democracy.

In “Civil Disobedience: Destroyer of Democracy,” Van Dusen explains that civil disobedients are morally and politically irresponsible, because they do not interact properly as a functioning member of the democracy. He explains that protestors use their non-violent techniques to speed up the process of change; however this type of involvement separates them from the democracy and shows that they do not believe in the government’s capability of making changes in laws. Van Dusen states that “when civil disobedients for lack of faith abstain from democratic involvement, they help attain their own gloomy prediction. They help create the social and political basis for their own despair. By foreseeing failure, they help forge it” (1). When citizens stray from democratic forms of change, their actions show that they have lost faith in their government. This lack of democratic involvement causes the failure that they think will happen. If all members of society contributed to the democracy, then changes will happen and the government will function properly as needed to make the changes required by society.

Civil disobedience continues to be a politically and morally controversial issue. However, authoritative sources such as Plato, Martin Luther King, and Lewis Van Dusen have differing opinions on how to protest unjust laws in America. Non-violent protesting creates confrontation within the government and authorities are still unsure how to comply with this type of protest. American citizens want change to happen in their country and will do whatever it takes to make it happen.

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