Thursday, February 01, 2007

The hypocrisy of civil disobedience

We were watching Boston Legal last night. (Extremely silly show, obvious liberal political bias, but still a lot of fun. And boy, justice moves quickly in Boston. But I digress.) There was a case that involved a character who sprayed a woman with blue paint because her company did testing of cosmetics on animals. The character's defense was basically that he shouldn't be convicted because the animal testing is so morally wrong that it needed to be stopped. This got me thinking.

I have a tough time with this line of reasoning, though. Civil disobedience of course has a long history of being a non-violent and morally superior method for exposing evils in society, and I think that's great. But there are three ways to go about it; the distinction is subtle, I think, but important:
  1. Commit your act of civil disobedience, and then claim that you shouldn't be prosecuted because what you were doing was morally right.
  2. Commit your act of civil disobedience and defend yourself on the basis that the law under which you're being prosecuted needs to be tossed out, not just for you but for everyone (for example, because it is unconstitutional).
  3. Commit your act of civil disobedience and demand to be prosecuted for it and plead guilty (i.e., invite the conviction) and let your conviction highlight the wrongness of the law or of the thing for which you were convicted.

I think the first method exposes the hypocrisy of the protester while the other two achieves the goal of highlighting the hypocrisy of the law or of the thing being protested.

The problem I have with the first method is that it sets a precedent that anybody who thinks that they are following a higher moral calling can ignore any law that they want and get away with it. This leads to anarchy, frankly. And besides, the whole point of civil disobedience is to suffer so that your suffering shows the wrongness of a status quo; if you go the first route, you are basically saying that you're not willing to pay the price. That's not civil disobedience, that's just flouting the law.

The second approach is pretty straightforward, but unfortunately often doesn't present itself as a viable course. It also gets into the tricky area of "judicial activism," (a notion that many conservatives view as an existing out-of-control problem but which I view as merely something to be careful of). Nevertheless, I think civil disobedience as a way to force judicial review of a law that needs to be struck down is a fine thing. (Frankly, I'd like to see more people violating the DMCA to force review of this overreaching restrictions on our freedom, but that's a topic for another posting.)

The third approach is, I think, the gold standard for civil disobedience. This is for those tricky cases where, like it or not, the law has passed legal muster but is simply morally repugnant.

Abortion is probably the poster-child issue for this today: legally, it's a settled matter, but morally it obviously is not, so I'll pick on this issue to highlight what I mean. I do not intend to take a side on the abortion debate here, just highlight two potential methods of civil disobedience protest; I could just as easily pick on radical animal rights groups, for example.

I respect abortion protesters who get arrested (for non-violent acts!) and fill the jails to highlight their cause; this actually demonstrates that they are willing to sacrifice for what they believe.

On the other hand, I have no respect whatsoever for the abortion protestors who break the law and then try to claim that they should not be punished for having done so (especially if violence is involved). This is a weasel approach. In my opinion, people who take this approach - regardless of cause - are not willing to sacrifice for their beliefs. Yet it is the sacrifice, not the original act of civil disobedience, that ultimately changes minds. Isn't that the point of civil disobedience?

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