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Contents:


  1. SAGE Reference - Civil Disobedience
  2. Post navigation
  3. Overview of Political Theory

The focusing power of a public disruption is often considered central to the efficacy of these political actions, both those that take place in the street and online. Along this vein, this chapter also takes on certain critiques of DDoS-as-civil-disobedience that seem to originate from an ahistorical view of the development and implementation of civil disobedience in the United States of America. I argue that the popular and media understandings of civil disobedience in Western democracies, particularly in the United States, stem from a narrativized view of iconic moments in political activism, such as the Civil Rights Movement, which do not take into account the realities faced by political movements as they develop or the particular challenges faced by activists attempting to operate in a novel environment such as the internet, where the norms and expectations of activist speech and practice are far from established.

I further argue that criticisms rooted in narrativized, media-based understandings of activist movements ultimately chill innovation in political movements.


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This chapter also considers the role that the disruption of speech and the resultant episodes of nonspeech can play in a discursive democracy. Drawing on the theories of Jodi Dean and others, I am here making the potentially counterintuitive argument that sometimes what is necessary for the continued functioning of a talk- and information-based democratic system is the interpolation of silence rather than the continued injection of more perhaps unheeded speech.

In his tract, Thoreau describes how his abolitionist principles and opposition to the Mexican-American War led to his refusal to pay taxes, an action which he considered to be the most direct form of resistance the government, and which led to his subsequent very brief imprisonment. Thoreau's original conception of civil disobedience included the imprisonment of the disobedient as central to its potential impact:.

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Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison. The proper place to-day, the only place which Massachusetts has provided for her freer and less desponding spirits, is in her prisons, to be put out and locked out of the State by her own act, as they have already put themselves out by their principles.

For Thoreau and many who came after him, the spectacle of public disobedience was incomplete without the punitive reaction from the state. Though Thoreau maintained his actions to be in service to his own conscience, he also understood that there was an audience for his actions. His refusal to pay tax, imprisonment, and particularly his writing about it later, were intended as performances of an active injustice, wherein both Thoreau and the forces of the state were both players. For Thoreau, his act of civil disobedience specifically involved inducing the state to participate in a public drama by which the state would be revealed as unjust and Thoreau confirmed as a just man with a just cause.

Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr advocated the acceptance of punishment as central to his position of nonviolent civil disobedience:. One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit 22 that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice , is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

The Civil Rights Movement in the United States in the s and s is considered the modern paradigmatic example of collective civil disobedience by many. The highly mediated movement, photographed, filmed, and televised, cast the mold for the popular perception of civil disobedience. Stark images of peaceful street marchers beset by police dogs, lunch counter sit-ins, and Rosa Parks at the front of the bus are timeless illustrations of a righteous minority standing firm in the face of obvious injustice.

Following Thoreau's model, civil disobedience during the Civil Rights Movement meant, for many activists, putting their bodies and identities on the line, getting arrested for their cause in full view of the state and the media. This is a widely recognized script for the conduct of civil disobedient activism: it happens in public, it happens on the street, and activists willingly face consequences such as arrest or injury for their cause.

It's a script the news media readily recognizes, and activists who adhere to it are rewarded with coverage that legitimates its political nature. When trying to understand modern instances of civil disobedience or disruptive activism, be it Occupy, the global justice movement, or internet-based actions such as DDoS, the Civil Rights Movement is often treated as a singular touchstone, used to determine the validity and political seriousness of the action in question.

Over the last half century, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States has taken a venerated place in political history. Its history has been narrativized and packaged to the point where it has become virtually ahistorical, and no modern, developing movement could possibly stand up in comparison. One aspect of civil disobedience that this nostalgia glosses over is its potential for disruption. The marches, sit-ins, and boycotts of the civil rights era were intensely disruptive and were intended to be so. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.

It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. Just as Socrates felt that it was necessary to create a tension in the mind so that individuals could rise from the bondage of myths and half truths to the unfettered realm of creative analysis and objective appraisal, so must we see the need for nonviolent gadflies to create the kind of tension in society that will help men rise from the dark depths of prejudice and racism to the majestic heights of understanding and brotherhood.

The purpose of our direct action program is to create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation. I therefore concur with you in your call for negotiation. Too long has our beloved Southland been bogged down in a tragic effort to live in monologue rather than dialogue. Of course, it's easy to acknowledge the virtue of disruption in a bygone era for a movement that is universally acknowledged to have been necessary and moral.

Often it's a trickier proposition to see the democratic utility of disrupting the status quo when it is your status quo being disrupted, by activists whose causes or tactics you might not fully understand or agree with. It is less common for democracies to be explicit in acknowledging that civil disobedience continues to be a reasonable and sometimes justified form of political participation. This is true in the physical world as well as in the online space.

Without exploiting the capacity of disruption to direct the attention and political resources of a discursive democracy, it's likely that causes which do not align with values already present in the mainstream political discourse would not be addressed, or would not be addressed as valid political concerns. The popular instinct to judge modern protest actions against the memory of the Civil Rights Movement disregards the ways in which the context and practice of activism has changed or ignores central realities of activist practice that have been present for some time.

It also ignores realities about how political movements, including the Civil Rights Movement, develop, adapt, and change over time, in terms of their organizing, street tactics, and media practices. Many of the most iconic moments in the Civil Rights Movement were exquisitely stage-managed 25 to maximize their media impact and to cast the movement in the most sympathetic light possible. Fifteen-year-old Claudette Colvin was arrested on March 2, nine months before Park's arrest in December.

The civil rights leaders had deemed Colvin an inappropriate figurehead for the movement. She was known to spout profanity and in fact had done so on the day of the arrest and was an unwed pregnant teenager. In October, Mary Louise Smith refused to leave her seat for a white woman, but she was deemed an inappropriate candidate for mobilization as well because she was the very poor daughter of a man rumored to be an alcoholic.

The storytelling which occurs around social movements favors clear, emotionally compelling through-lines, which are often difficult, if not impossible to discern in the moment, on the street, or at the computer. The present is always messy, only the past has the opportunity to be clean ed. Ongoing or developing activist actions simply cannot be consumed by the public in the same fashion as iconic social movements which have had half a century to establish narratives in the media and the public imagination.

Not only do these new movements and actions not have the same goals as the Civil Rights Movement, they are also not organized by activists with the same level of or same kind of experience, and they occupy entirely different historical moments, with respect to when they are taking place, when they are being examined, and how. So not only do these popular critiques often bear little relationship to how the Civil Rights Movement occurred on the ground, but they also fail to realize that a comparison between internet-based activism occurring at the turn of the millennium and the iconic ideal of the midcentury Civil Rights Movement often serves no other purpose than to fault the current generation of political activists for not being their grandparents.

Similarly, this ahistorical myopia that encourages the exile of tactics such as occupations, blockades, monkey wrenching, defacements, culture jamming, strikes, sabotage, and many more from the popularly recognized repertoire of civil disobedience discourages activism and dissent, as well as any meaningful analysis thereof. Students, blue-collar workers, 27 inner-city youth, the homeless, those living below the poverty line, and other minorities are routinely pushed out of public political life because they are not engaging in what is popularly accepted as proper political conduct.

SAGE Reference - Civil Disobedience

By ignoring the potential legitimacy of these out-of-the-mainstream disruptive tactics, critics are contributing to this systemic disenfranchisement by artificially and harmfully restricting what political speech and conduct is acceptable and, by extension, whose. A refusal to adapt to the modern, accepted repertoire of contention also implies a refusal to acknowledge basic changes in how the media and governments interact with political activists, particularly in the online space.

Also dismissed are how the growing roles of corporations, multigovernmental organizations, and nongovernmental organizations have made these entities apt targets for performative, disruptive dissent. However, as will be discussed in detail in Chapter 7 , any attempt to fully grapple with online-based activism must include anticorporate actions as valid, given the strong some would say dominate role many corporations have in the governance of the online space, through influence on government and regulatory bodies as well as through code and contracts like mandatory Terms of Service and binding arbitration clauses.

In terms of operational theory and impact, activist DDoS actions are not meaningfully different from other actions within the history of civil disobedience. What they are is novel, and they occur in a novel environment: the online space. This novelty, and their ability to impact the lives of nonparticipants at potentially unprecedented scale, contributes greatly to their controversial nature. However, novelty cannot properly exempt activist DDoS from being classified as a tactic of civil disobedience. Its disruptive nature cannot, on its own, render it inappropriate or criminal. Rather, the disruption itself is full of meaning.

An activist DDoS action allows activists to step directly into the constantly shifting information stream and take a role in its temporary alterations. Pfaffenberger's framework gives us the opportunity to break apart the impact of activist DDoS actions on the level of its technological politics. Here the counterartifact produced is the disruption itself. The blank browser screen, the long-delayed load time. By combining Pfaffenberger's concept of the counterartifact with Jodi Dean's theory of communicative capitalism, we can see how the imposition of silence and delay into a signal rich environment can be not only a powerful discursive contribution, but also a necessary one for the proper functioning of the public sphere.

By replacing continuity with disruption, activists attempt to create a rhetorical cavity in the digitized structure of capitalism wherein activism can take place. It is the creation of excavated, disrupted space that is valuable in these contexts, sometimes even more valuable than a direct discursive engagement between activists and their target.

The fact of the disruption is here the salient contribution, particularly when the moment of disruption is conceived of not as a space without content, but as a space without signal. In Dean's theory of communicative capitalism, 29 she intentionally renders irrelevant the content of messages circulating within the networked data stream. The exchange value of messages overtakes their use value.

Circulation is the setting for the acceptance or rejection of a contribution. In that context, the interruption of that signal becomes an equally powerful contribution. If we look at the moment of content-less interruption as a moment of impact to be absorbed rather than a conveyance of content to be understood, we can then look at it as a form of exchange between differently empowered groups or between different power structures.

What is invited is not a confrontation with another, which in Dean's constant whirl of murmured content with no audience is not possible anyway. Under communicative capitalism, it is possible that it is the intentional creation of disruptions and silence that is the most powerful contribution. The disruptions and silences that result provide a digestive reprieve from the self-referential swirl of content that demands constant comment but never makes room for reflection and analysis. It opens bandwidth for speech from new actors and participants in a public discourse that otherwise only ever receives signals from those always already broadcasting.

The disruption inherent in DDoS actions is not empty of meaning. The targeted content is not supplanted by a void. Rather, it is exchanged for the fact of action. A conversation 30 occurs, though the parties are speaking with different vocabularies. The intentionality of these actions is important. Activist DDoS actions and other types of disruptive activism are not random acts of vandalism; they are not simply shouting someone down with nonsensical noise. The exchange of speech for action or speech for conduct and the subsequent exchange of that conduct for more speech perhaps from an unfamiliar source is still a type of conversation.

Disruptive activism and most types of civil disobedience, in general, tend to be conduct-based rather than speech-based activism. John Simmons first raised this objection against Rawls.

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See A. Lerman, and Vesla M. This is especially prob- lematic in nonideal societies like ours, where mutual trust and reciprocity come in short supply. Smith illustrates this problematic aspect of civil disobedience with the case of the anti-globalization protests in Seattle. The protests generated signifi- cant resentment in the population, and strained the bonds of civic friendship. Thus the example fails, unless it is combined with the additional claim that civil disobedience has a tendency to degenerate into violent forms of protest, which Smith denies.

What Smith does argue, as I noted, is that civil disobedience violates the duty to comply, imposes costs on society, and invites the risk of proliferation. He bases the tendency of civil disobedience to strain the bonds of civic friendship on these consider- ations.

Yet, as I shall now argue, Smith should have considered—on democratic grounds— that civil disobedience tends to strengthen, not weaken, civic friendship. In her reflections on the protests against the Vietnam War in the United States, Hannah Arendt challenges the widespread assumption that civil disobedience is a matter of indi- vidual, subjective conscience: The greatest fallacy in the present debate is the assumption that we are dealing with individuals, who pit themselves subjectively and conscientiously against the laws and customs of the community.

She nonetheless recognizes that civil disobedience carries some risk, as one might resort to civil disobedience without proper justification or in a way that shows bad evaluation of the political situation. This is the same impetus that animates not only earlier voluntary associations, but also some of the revolutionary movements she studied in On Revolution. To the extent that protesters resorted to methods aligned with the principles of deliberative respect viz.

Occupy thus invigorated the deliberative environment. It is reasonable to argue that Occupy strengthened the bonds of civic friendship. The protests certainly imposed law enforcement costs on cities, but they garnered great popular support and did not generate irritation and resentment on the part of the citizenry. Occupy protests proliferated to many cities Occupy Boston, Occupy Oakland, etc. Indeed protesters can reject the duty to comply without undermining civic friendship, so long as they endorse a duty of civility.

All in all, this calls for both a rethinking of the problem of civil disobedience as it is traditionally conceived, and some skepticism about the allegedly corrosive effects of civil disobedience on civic friendship. This right involves a claim- right against punishment not penalty , but it does not involve a liberty-right or moral permission to engage in civil disobedience, since unjustified civil disobedience is not morally permissible.

But of course justified civil disobedience is morally permissible. In this section, I want to go further and defend the existence of a moral duty to engage in civil disobedience against injustice. Why do this? First, to better fit the phenomena. While theorists focus on the mere permissibility of civil disobedience, practitioners—Thoreau chief among them—consider resistance against injustice a matter of moral duty. As we saw, Smith argues that citizens ought to recognize the duty to comply even in contexts of deliberative disrespect where it does not arise. In non-democratic societies, or under excessively unjust cir- cumstances, theorists implicitly assume that citizens are released of any obligation.

Erica Chenoweth and Maria J. Taussig, B. Harcourt, and W. This general duty of resistance has two main applications, which I consider briefly below: 1 a duty to protest injustice, and 2 a duty to correct or frustrate injustice. But blatantly unjust law denies some of them full and equal status. For the same reasons, the duty of justice cannot bind citizens to comply with unjust law in less-than-democratic and non-democratic societies. I noted earlier, contra Smith, that groups could disobey civilly while explicitly denying the duty to comply. Here I further argue that the same reasons that explain why the duty of justice cannot bind citizens to comply with unjust law also explain why it may require them to protest unjust law.

Overview of Political Theory

Where unjust law denies some people their full and equal status in the political community, complying with it amounts to acknowledging and endorsing this lower status. This is forbidden by the duty of justice, which addresses individuals in their capacity as free and equal citizens and requires treating everyone with concern and respect.

So, the duty of justice prohibits compliance with unjust law—it demands noncompliance instead. But what kind of noncompliance? Smith lays out a number of reasons why civil disobedience, i. But what is one to do until the structural rectification is completed? The unjust law or policy continues to harm people in the meanwhile.

Normative Theories of Democracy

Think of slavery. Thousands upon thousands of people of African descent were enslaved, brutally treated, worked to death, and murdered, even while people devoted their lives to the abolitionist cause. Arguably, one was not merely bound to oppose and protest slavery. Thus Thoreau was not only an outspoken abolitionist; he also aided runaway slaves reach the Canadian border through the Underground Railroad. Hence the second implication of the duty of justice: a requirement to frustrate injustice when one is able to do so. The Sanctuary Movement offers a contemporary example of deliberative disrespect, within a democratic society, that might call for disobedience.

Indeed, not only is the disobedient act covert, but it is not undertaken with the aim of communicating a principled opposition to law and policy and stimulating a deliberative process. I chose these two cases to illustrate both a context of egregious injustice outside deliberative democracy and a context of deliberative disrespect within deliberative democracy.

Sanctuary Movement Boulder: Westview Press, The point is that the act flouts deliberative respect for the sake of frustrating injustice, thereby suggesting a tension between the liberal and democratic approaches to civil disobedience. In fact, the account of duties to resist injustice I laid out accords partic- ularly well with the concluding chapter of Civil Disobedience and Deliberative Democ- racy, in which Smith discusses the virtues displayed by civil disobedients. Deliberative inertia is manifest when certain agendas and discussions are blocked from the public sphere.

These three contexts of injustice—deliberative disrespect, deliberative disagreement, and deliberative inertia—constitute the appropriate objects of civil disobedience and are thus part of its justification, according to Smith. As a result, Smith fails to take into account other critical contexts of injustice, besides the three he identifies.

The system of racial domination was maintained through coercion, intimidation, and terror, including brutal police treatment, bombings of homes and churches, killing, and lynching. Lynching was common: a black person was lynched every week of Jim Crow. Many state officials, as members of the Ku Klux Klan, engaged in lynching. In Memphis and New Orleans, white police officers played an active role in killing blacks.

Although the law prohibited murder under Jim Crow, lynching was very rarely prosecuted, as southern states condoned, tolerated, and even encouraged vio- lence against African Americans. Police brutality, officially sanctioned lynching, systematic obstruction of justice, and failure to enforce the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment were all clearly illegal practices, and yet they were routine and in the open. Officials who did not conform to such practices were intimidated, harassed, and worse.

Efforts were made, some successfully, to turn these illegal practices into law.

One might object that official disrespect is but a facet of deliberative disrespect, in no need of a special category of its own, since deliberative disrespect includes the toleration, not just the enactment, of blatant injustice. But I think that the injustice at stake in official disrespect goes beyond the idea that democratic majorities can enact or tolerate blatant injustices, and warrants the conceptualization of a separate category, to underscore the locus and mechanism of injustice in contexts like Jim Crow.

I shall further submit that official disrespect, like deliberative disrespect, is incompatible with the duty to comply. Cruikshank 92 U. The Cruikshank Court overturned the con- victions of two white defendants in the Colfax massacre around blacks were killed , and put an end to the Ku Klux Klan prosecutions. See e. Kramer, et al. Official disrespect thus constitutes an appropriate object of protest. Not only would civil disobedience be justified, given the good of communicating opposition to official disre- spect, but other non-civil forms of action could be justified, too.

Not all vigilantism can be justified against official disrespect.

But vigilante groups, such as the Deacons for Defense, that arose to defend African Americans against white supremacist violence under Jim Crow—illegally and with force—could well be justified. So my remarks here do not purport to challenge the deliberative account of civil disobedience; they simply suggest expanding the account to include contexts of official disrespect.

The sort of cases I have in mind fall somewhere between official disrespect and deliberative inertia. Like official disrespect, deliberative ignorance involves authorities and officials, but unlike it, deliberative ignorance is not open and visible. Smith argues that the good of communicating opposition to law and policy through civil disobedience outweighs the duty to comply in cases of justified civil disobedience. The good of rectifying deliberative ignorance constitutes yet another reason which can out- weigh the duty to comply, I contend.

However, rectifying deliberative ignorance calls for something else than civil disobedience. It often calls for the intentional release of infor- mation about some alleged misconduct by the state or state officials, to alert the public. In contexts of deliberative ignorance, the agent acquires classified information about the state or government, typically through mishandling or theft of protected documents, and dis- closes it to the public, typically through leaks to news outlets. Insofar as the government whistleblower steals and leaks state secrets, the illegality of her action is much harder to justify than that of civil disobedience.

Its problematic aspect is not simply that it violates the duty to comply, but is also that it flouts a very significant state interest—the interest in concealing, and having exclusive control over, certain information for the sake of effective governance—and can thereby threaten national security. Let me briefly illustrate with two well-known cases. Prados and M.