What exactly is civil disobedience? It’s a tricky one to define. But, for the sake of ease, let’s just say it like this:

Civil disobedience is the performance of an illegal act which is directed in some way against the government, for whatever reason.

Sometimes, civil disobedience is also known as “non-violent direct action.”

Just remember, there’s a difference between just breaking the law, and disobeying it. If you decide to drive your car home from the bar after drinking seven beers, it is not an act of civil disobedience. Why not? Because your action is not aimed at trying to change some law within our government. You are simply driving home drunk because you don’t want to wait for a taxi, right?

People who carry out acts of civil disobedience usually want to make something “better” for the whole of society, not just for themselves. It’s also worth noting that civilly disobedient acts are usually intended to catch public attention and to raise awareness of the “injustices” which the protestor is protesting against.

Therefore stealing, for instance, would not usually be seen as an act of civil disobedience. Stealing does not generally aim to bring about a change in the law and it is not usually done with an effort to raise awareness – rather the opposite, in fact!

Some Examples Of Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience comes in all shapes and forms – whether you see it or not.

Russian feminist punk rock band Pussy Riot, who staged unauthorized performances in public locations in opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin, were committing acts of civil disobedience. The group consider Putin to be a dictator, and three members of the group spent two years each in prison for their beliefs.

The Cardinal who insisted that “Roman Catholic officials should be prepared to lose their jobs rather than co-operate with the law” over the 2005 laws proposed by the Spanish government to allow marriage between gay people was a civil disobedient.

And the ninety members of Greenpeace who, believing that we all have a duty not to squander and spoil the Earth’s natural resources, broke into a huge nuclear power plant in France, were also all acting out of civil disobedience.

Perhaps you agree with some acts of civil disobedience and not others? So, this begs the question…

When Is It OK For Us To Carry Out Acts of Civil Disobedience?

Kumi Naidoo, the head of Greenpeace International, advocates the use of civil disobedience or “non-violent direct action,” given that, he says, it “manages to penetrate the consciousness of our leaders’ minds much more powerfully than other methods.”

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He also sees the “crimes” of breaking the law proportionate – in terms of justice – to the crimes being committed by governments or corporations who don’t consider environmental justice.

If we live in “democratic” countries, where our views are said to be represented by our governments, it is hard to argue that we are ever justified in acts of civil disobedience. Because, technically, we get our say and we should be happy with the laws that are in place.

But, of course, it’s not that simple…

So, Let’s Start With Some Philosophical Basics:

Philosopher John Locke believed that we have a right to civil disobedience if we believe that our government goes against our wishes.

Thomas Hobbes, on the other hand, believes that civil disobedience is only acceptable when our government’s actions threaten our lives or our honor.

And Henry David Thoreau – the man who refused to pay taxes in opposition to “the Mexican-American War, the subjugation of Native America, and… the slave trade” (and went to jail for it) – says that we are always entitled to rebel against anything which we don’t feel is right.

Some NGOs, for example, also believe that – because they don’t take money from corporations or governments – they have the independence to speak “truths.” More democratic, perhaps, than even a democratically elected government? Many would think so.

So, as you can see, there are many different arguments for when political disobedience is right. That’s what makes it so hard… And that’s why you’ll have to make up your own mind.

But, as Kumi Naidoo once said:

Don’t be afraid of being vilified… The struggle for justice has never been a popularity contest.

Go forth and seek justice, friends!

A few important points to keep in mind:

  • If your conscience says something is unjust, and you believe that your voice is not being heard by your government, then sometimes civil disobedience is the only way to change things.
  • Not all laws are “just” and sometimes, temporarily acting outside of the law for a “greater good” is worthy of consideration.
  • Non-violent forms of civil disobedience are often more successful in achieving what they set out to do.


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