Civil disobedience helps democracy because it provides a means to insure that which is just and that which is right will prevail. Democracy, founded on the principle of rule of the majority, cannot always insure that justice and rightness are maintained in the laws which guide it. As Thoreau (1849) assessed law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of the respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents on injustice. Furthermore, as Thoreau suggested, it is more important to do what is right at any given time than to develop a sense of respect for the law. Laws do not insure that justice will be done nor are they always developed in the name of justice and that which is right.
At the time Thoreau argued for civil disobedience, he was rightly concerned about our democracy and our laws in a time in which slavery was tolerated and accepted, for the most part by our government. While issues such as slavery do not always challenge the American people, other issues of critical importance do. As Thoreau questioned, where are there men and women who are willing to be done with laws that are harmful, that are unjust, and that ultimately, tarnish the meaning of democracy for all? We become complacent and we believe that by casting our vote, we have made our voices heard. Some of us shrug our shoulders, wearing a sense of hopelessness and helplessness within our hearts, and as Thoreau indicated, wait for someone else to take a stand and right the wrong that is transpiring within our nation.
Civil disobedience provides us with the means to no longer feel that our hands are tied and that we can only wait on others who may be more capable of bringing about necessary change. Civil disobedience, as Thoreau expressed, gives us the opportunity to no longer leave the right to the mercy of mere chance (i.e., what will happen as a consequence of the vote of the majority). Through civil disobedience, our democracy can remain strong and true to the beliefs of those who founded our country as we refuse to no longer obey those laws that are unjust by refusing to wait for attempts to amend them. Amendment occurs as we step forward and refuse to follow the wrongs set forth by those laws which are unjust.
At times, we, the American people, observe that harm to others happening before and around us, within our nation, within our government, as a consequence of the laws of our land. If those occurrences that we may question as unjust and non-representative of our democracy occur outside the boundaries of our own communities, we tend to think, that while we are concerned with the events, it is not our responsibility to engage in actions to change what is happening. However, as Martin Luther King (1963) said so appropriately, in his letter from Birmingham jail, we must be cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. If democracy matters to us, we must recognize as King suggested that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere and whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
Assuming a role in and taking action through civil disobedience efforts provides us with a means to recognize and respond to injustice regardless where it occurs in this nation of ours. As we have witnessed the harm that can come about as a result of violent actions done in the name of civil disobedience (e.g., the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma), it is important for us to consider the importance of engaging only in acts of civil disobedience which are based on principles of non-violence. King provided a strategy for acts of civil disobedience when he outlined the processed used during the civil rights movement of the 1960 s. As King suggested, it is important that civil disobedience be based on a process in which initial efforts are directed towards determining whether injustices have occurred. If data collected, proves the existence of injustice, efforts must then be directed towards negotiation in an attempt to bring about change. Additionally, as King noted, self-purification (i.e., making certain that one is not participating in or supporting existing injustices) is also critically important to the process of civil disobedience. Finally, when negotiation has failed to bring about change, direct action should be used, as suggested by King, through peaceful, non-violent actions aimed at ending the injustice.
Civil disobedience, enacted through non-violent measures as suggested by King, can help to bring about change by creating tension within communities in which injustice is occurring. As tension emerges and increases, acts of civil disobedience can help to foster negotiation
King, Martin Luther, Jr. Letter from Birmingham Jail,
April 16, 1963.
Thoreau, Henry David. Civil Disobedience,