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On Civil and Violent Disobedience

Consider the foundational virtues and valuable traits we were taught in elementary school. Disobedience and, further, rebellion is not one that immediately comes to mind. Young students are encouraged to be obedient, especially to people in authority.

Disobedience and rebellion can simultaneously be valuable and discouraged by society. But saying these two traits promote social progress is not an absolute statement. Violent forms of disobedience, like rebellion, when employed immediately and for selfish gains, often lead to the degradation of human life. However, this does not mean that there is no value in disobedience whatsoever, as disobedience gives mankind control over their own lives and the power to create a difference. A society lacking disobedience leads to tyranny, while a society built purely by disobedient actions leads to anarchy.

There’s no doubt that civil and selfless disobedience has historically promoted social progress. For instance, the women’s rights movement demonstrates how nonviolent protests have blossomed into an essential part of our culture that is still with us today. The ideals established by the women’s rights movement still define us as Americans, and this was accomplished through civil disobedience, further showing the long-lasting effect of this societal improvement. Victory was made possible through centuries of nonviolent protests. Women gathered in conventions, pickets, marches, and others, among various other means, to protest to raise awareness for this injustice. These marches led people to the White House, hoping to appeal directly to government officials and authorities at their front door, where they cannot be ignored. This method of protest and disobedience was successful primarily because it was accomplished civilly, excluding the bloodshed and utilizing more boycotts and marches. This nonviolent approach has been portrayed as more admirable than violent disobedience, as people naturally oppose violence. Their success produced a more morally intelligent society as including the entire population in political decisions, not divided by arbitrary factors like gender, has undoubtedly improved society.

Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement also had similar goals and motivations. Several years after the US Congress passed the 19th Amendment, MLK started to lead his nonviolent movement for racial equality, starting with the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955. He preached his philosophy of nonviolence throughout this entire protest, promoting powerful sit-ins, massive marches, economic boycotts, and others, among other civil protests. This moral motivation to end discrimination against people of color, as well as the civil method used to put an end to racism, proves the valuable effects that disobedience has in the face of injustice. When opposing inequity, as shown through the women’s rights and civil rights movements, the virtuous motivation to end discrimination towards women and African Americans, as well as the nonviolent means to do so, all led to the success of disobedience in improving social progress. However, there are moments in which peaceful disturbances and disobedience aren’t enough. These instances throughout history, when people are entirely oppressed, may lead to a necessary call to arms. No matter how righteous, these peaceful protests may not yield the solution needed in which violent disobedience needs to be resorted to, following the kill-or-be-killed mentality. Regardless, this brutality must only occur after an attempt to rebel peacefully and a quick realization of knowing it will not be enough.

When we use violence, it’s important to consider who the oppressors are. Some may also question the validity and morality of using violence, as there is always a cost associated with bloodshed. With nonviolence, there is less of a dire cost as physical blood is not spilled in their fight for due process rights. Regardless, violent disobedience can promote social progress as long as this disobedience is not taking advantage of its position to society. Proper utilization of disobedience leads to success, and any other forms that take advantage of the power to disobey can lead to a degradation of human life.

The French Revolution, specifically the Reign of Terror, abused their right to disobey, explaining why this era led to failure. This time in history crossed the moral line and violated the fundamental basic rights of humanity. The monarchy was an exploitative system, and the intent that the people had to end this cruel rule was just, in theory. However, the effect did not positively progress society, shaping France from an unjust monarchy to an imperialist emperor. The Reign of Terror included fundamentally extreme ideologies attempting to expand their influence on a country. They aimed at garnering support by eliminating the competition. These revolutionaries abused their power from disobedience to keep their position of authority. These selfish and malicious motivations for disobedience ultimately led to society’s degradation.

The degree of violence used in the Reign of Terror was too great, and at this point, this action becomes less of disobedience and more of a misuse of force. All this to say, social progress was not promoted in this period in history. Violent disobedience is only effective and beneficial to society when used as a last resort, considering the cost of human life is for selfless intent. The value of a life establishes how civil acts are preferred over violent ones. Nonviolent is undoubtedly more successful than violence as it is harder to maintain ideals brought about by violence. So many citizens were opposed to the Reign of Terror that they were desperate enough to blindly follow the next charismatic person who arrived with a different perspective. With violent actions, fear is instilled in the people in an attempt to progress society. However, that aspect of fear is still rooted within those individuals long-term. Long-term change is impossible when driven by fear because, instinctively, that is what people are naturally opposed to. This reasoning led to why the Reign of Terror was unsuccessful and eventually overthrown. Social progress is only successful when one can live and express oneself freely without consequences; if you can improve the lives of everyone, or the majority, in society, success has been achieved.

Many people believe these violent and barbaric acts, as reflected in the Reign of Terror, are past actions. They believe that these are parts of human history that were far left behind and that our society has moved and progressed to a more civilized platform. However, today, violent disobedience is still being abused. This is seen in the January 6, 2021, Capitol raid. These attackers wanted to preserve Trump’s presidency illegitimately, and due to this selfish motivation, disobedience was not a valuable virtue in this situation. Rebellion is valuable only when responsibility is used to accomplish a larger societal goal. While these mobbers may have believed they were fighting for a just cause, the bias and propaganda thrown at them led them to oppose any ideal that was different from theirs. The use of violence was not justified in this scenario. The size and nature of their “oppressor” was also not a colossal entity. If the Capitol attackers truly felt they were in a position of injustice, peaceful protests, and petitions would be the ideal way to exercise their right to disobey. This is not an isolated issue, as some of these participating individuals are parents of the next generation, influencing and shaping how their children will act and think.

There is abundant evidence showing the negative consequences of disobedience and how it can undoubtedly lead to societal degradation or stagnation, specifically rebellion. This calls into question if disobedience is a virtue at all. Disobedience can only be taught and exercised by those who are responsibly aware enough to know the consequences of that action and are willing to pay for it. They should not intentionally or maliciously aim to cause pain or harm to another person or entity. Disobedience is still a valuable trait. When employed irresponsibly, it can be unnecessarily dangerous to the employers and society. Disobedience will always be innate within an individual, but how we utilize it determines its worth and success.

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