The Instigator
LearnLoveLiveLife
Pro (for)
Losing
6 Points
The Contender
brian_eggleston
Con (against)
Winning
12 Points

In a democracy, civil disobedience is an appropriate weapon in the fight for justice.

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 8/5/2008 Category: Society
Updated: 8 years ago Status: Voting Period
Viewed: 3,567 times Debate No: 4920
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (9)
Votes (6)

 

LearnLoveLiveLife

Pro

This is a classic debate topic, whose roots, at least within an American context, go back to the struggle for American independence when British colonists engaged in acts of civil disobedience to protest against British rule. The Boston Tea Party, an act of civil disobedience, helped spark the American Revolution.

It was a far less dramatic act of civil disobedience, a single individual refusing to pay his taxes in protest of the Mexican-American war and slavery in the nineteenth century that made the term "civil disobedience" a definitive part of the lexicon of American political protest. In July, 1846, Henry David Thoreau spent a night in jail as a result of refusing to pay his taxes (he might have stayed in jail longer, but his aunt, against his wishes, paid the taxes on his behalf). His experience inspired him write the classic defense of civil disobedience, "Resistance to Civil Government, or Civil Disobedience Note"

Thoreau's essay continues to have a lasting impact, and served as inspiration for, among others, Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.. Gandhi and King, along with Thoreau, should be required reading for this topic. For a convincing argument against a commitment to nonviolence at the expense of justice, see Peter Gelderloos, How Nonviolence Protects the State. Gelderloos argues convincingly against applying Gandhi's methods in other contexts.

At the core of this topic is a very basic question: in a democracy, where people have a chance to vote for change, is breaking the law a legitimate form of political protest? Does respect for the democratic process obligate protesters to refrain from breaking the law?

I believe that civil disobedience is one of the most efficient ways of inciting change in government, and ultimately gaining justice.
brian_eggleston

Con

With thanks to my opponent for posting this debate, I should like to make it clear from the outset that I'm not some old fuddy-duddy that disapproves of mass demonstrations. On the contrary, the right to participate in public protests is of fundamental importance to a healthy democracy and I have personally taken part in a number political rallies, some of which have degenerated into riots, such as was the case in the Poll Tax Protest.

http://news.bbc.co.uk...

However, while I was happy to register my disapproval of the then right-wing Tory Government's proposal to effectively bar poor people from voting by peacefully participating in the demonstration, I was deeply disappointed when violence broke out (not least of all because some coppers on horses bludgeoned me to the ground with their truncheons!)

In the ensuing chaos, innocent people had their property damaged or destroyed. I witnessed numerous acts of wanton destruction. Prestigious cars were overturned and set alight and upmarket shops were trashed. While a peaceful protest is perfectly legal, these acts of criminal damage are not and it was the rioting and destruction that made the headlines, rather than the mass protest at a patently unjust Government policy.

My opponent referred to the traitors that, with the help of treacherous French insurgents, rebelled against British rule in America! At that time, America was not a democracy and so it can be argued that at that time civil disobedience was justified, just as the citizens of Palestine, which is illegally occupied by Israel, are justified in attacking strategic Israeli targets today.

However, those that shout loudest are not always right and in a democracy everyone has to accept the will of the majority of the citizens that elect Government's on the basis of their manifestos. No citizen in a democracy can pick and choose which laws they obey. If a citizen disagrees with any given law or policy, they have the right to organise a peaceful protest, lobby their political representative and vote for the opposition in the next election, but not to engage in illegal civil disobedience.
Debate Round No. 1
LearnLoveLiveLife

Pro

First, I would like to thank my opponent for accepting my debate.

Long understood as the direct government by the people, the word "democracy" is today used to describe a broad assortment of governments. Indeed, one of the most oppressive regimes in the world today, calls itself the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, more commonly referred to simply as North Korea. Now, of course, no reasonable definition of democracy would include Kim Kong Il's oppressive dictatorship. However, the word democracy has become more elastic over the years, with most every regime trying to describe itself as being in one form of another a democracy. It is worth noting, though, that as recently at the 18th century, democracy was looked on as a form of government unlikely to promote justice. In the Tenth Federalist Paper, James Madison disparaged democracy claiming that "democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths." Instead, Madison and his fellow Federalists argued in favor of what they believed was a wholly different form of government, a "republican form," by which they meant "a government in which the scheme of representation takes place." Today, the form of government that the Federalists described as "republican" is no longer thought of as being in opposition to democracy but rather itself a form of democratic government. The republicanism that Madison championed as an alternative to democracy is now considered a form of government. Similarly, over the years, many of the rights and liberties enumerated in the American Bill of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man have similarly been incorporated into the popular understanding of what democracy entails. Rights which were originally thought of as checks on democracy are now understood of as a necessary part of democracy.

With the definition of democracy contested and something of a muddle, it will be a challenge for my opponent and I to find common ground. For instance, my opponent can safely concede that Gandhi acted appropriately since there is no one who would argue that the British Raj was a democracy. However, what to make of the government Thoreau was protesting? Was the United States in the nineteenth century a democracy? If it wasn't a democracy, what was it?

It seems to me that my opponent's main argument is the fact that civil disobedience often leads to unnecessary violence, which could easily be avoided with peaceful protest.

I agree, however civil disobedience has a history of overcoming oppression and unpopular policies where all other methods have failed:

For example:
-Gandhi's civil disobedience was instrumental in winning liberty for India, and Martin Luther King's tactics won basic rights for black people in America.
-In 1998 rioters in Indonesia successfully protested against the despotic system of government that existed under the Suharto regime. In all of these cases there was no other avenue open to redress grievances; law breaking, whether Gandhi's non-violent marches or King's encouragement of the burning of rate books, was the only way to protest effectively.

Furthermore, it is the conflict with authority that gives the protest its power and urgency, and brings an issue to a wider audience.
The suffragettes, the civil rights movement and the anti-Apartheid struggle are all examples of an eventually successful cause that won by its confrontation with authority, where more sedate methods would simply not have succeeded. In all these cases, any violence against people was not initiated by the protesters, but began because of the heavy-handed and violent response of their oppressors.

This brings me to the point of "just violence".
Violence can be a means to bringing attention to a cause. If the cause is good and just, such violence may be justified.
Indeed, the American Revolution was a violent revolution, and many American historians argue that it was a justified reaction to King George III. If a violent revolution can be considered just, then violent civil-disobedience can be just as well, again, assuming the cause is just.

Also, some laws may not be "just laws".

If a certain law breaks fundamental "natural" or "universal" laws, then that law must be broken. National laws cannot be the ultimate authority - men and women are also under higher laws. It was established in the Nuremberg trials that sometimes international laws must override national ones. Many Christian thinkers (such as Martin Luther King) and other philosophers have argued that the law of God, or "natural law" is paramount, and that national laws which do not accord with it are unjust and should be resisted. Even under the theory of social contract, the state can be resisted if it becomes oppressive and so breaks its side of the contract.

One might say "well, if you don't like a law... go to court and challenge it".

Not every just cause can be pursued through the courts (e.g. the campaign for Indian independence). Not every democracy has a written constitution or charter of rights, appeal to which allows the courts to override the will of the legislature (for example, the UK does not). Even in cases where a case could theoretically be taken through legal channels, the courts are often controlled by the same political elite as the government, and there is no guarantee of justice. And in any case, challenging an unjust law in court requires civil disobedience. Someone has to break that law deliberately, in order to be arrested and prosecuted for it, so that the case arrives in court in the first place.

Thus, I do not feel that ALL civil disobedience is an appropriate weapon for justice, nonetheless in many cases it may be not only appropriate but necessary.
brian_eggleston

Con

My opponent wrote: "With the definition of democracy contested and something of a muddle, it will be a challenge for my opponent and I to find common ground."

I certainly agree that there is no absolute consensus on what constitutes a democracy. For example, he referred to the violent struggle to bring an end to Apartheid in South Africa. Few people would disagree that the successful outcome of this uprising was a good thing, yet, until last month, Nelson Mandela was on the US terrorist watch list and the ANC was considered a terrorist organisation.

http://edition.cnn.com...

That said, the Economist's Intelligence Unit is highly respected source of information and categorises countries as follows:

Full democracies
Flawed democracies
Hybrid regimes
Authoritarian regimes

It further states: "Democracy presupposed equality before the law, due process and political pluralism."

http://www.economist.com...

I trust this will suffice as sufficiently definitive for the purposes of this debate.

Reading this report, by the way, it was interesting to note that the UK only ranks at 24th in the world, even though democracy itself was born there when King John signed the Magna Carta at Runnymede in 1215. This is probably because Britain (as my opponent duly pointed out) does not have a constitution and also because all Acts of Parliament must be approved by the head of state, the monarch, who is not elected.

The United Sates, the so-called "Land of the Free", doesn't fair much better though, being ranked as it is at a lowly 17th place. However, I suspect that if George Bush and his brother Jeb hadn't rigged the vote in Florida at the last election and Al Gore had been properly installed as President, the country's place in the rankings would be much higher!

But I digress. The topic of this debate was the acceptability of civil unrest in democratic countries. So while I would agree with many of the examples my opponent cited in his last argument, these uprisings didn't take place in what would generally accepted as democracies. For example, whereas the fight for freedom in South Africa could be considered justified, as the black majority did not have any legitimate way to change the government or influence its policies, the IRA bombing campaign in the UK during the latter part of the last century must be considered terrorism, because the majority of the population (of both Ulster itself and the Britain as a whole) wished Northern Ireland to remain a part of the country which is officially called The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

My opponent continued: "If a certain law breaks fundamental "natural" or "universal" laws, then that law must be broken. National laws cannot be the ultimate authority - men and women are also under higher laws" and went on to refer to religious, international and moral "laws" and claim it is necessary to break them in order to make a positive change in legislation.

There is an element of truth in this argument. For example, in the UK, laws are interpreted by the judiciary and precedents are set for future cases (which is not the case in a constitutional democracy such as the United States.) However, the decision reached by the court does not fundamentally change any given law.

Also, certain aspects of UK law are subordinate to European Union legislation. Additionally, the country is subject to the decisions arrived at by various international organisations such as the United Nations and is also party to numerous international treaties, but this relates to the nation as a whole and I cannot think of a scenario whereby civil dissobedience in a full democracy has been supported by any international authority.

It is also true that people with certain religious beliefs or people with strong personal convictions (such as the pacifists who refused to fight in the last World Wars) may feel justified in breaking the law, but they must and should pay the consequences because laws enacted by a democratically elected government represent the will of the majority of people.

In conclusion, whilst civil disobedience can certainly be justified in countries where the citizens have no other option than to rise up against their oppressors, it is unacceptable in a democracy because in this type of country the government is the servant of the people and if the political party in power's performance is unsatisfactory the citizens have the opportunity to replace it with another at the next general election.
Debate Round No. 2
LearnLoveLiveLife

Pro

My opponent makes many valid points, however he failed to comprehensively prove that civil disobedience is inappropriate.

--
My opponent said:

"It is also true that people with certain religious beliefs or people with strong personal convictions (such as the pacifists who refused to fight in the last World Wars) may feel justified in breaking the law, but they must and should pay the consequences because laws enacted by a democratically elected government represent the will of the majority of people."

-Those committing civil disobedience should not deny their binding obedience and fidelity to the law. As long as they are willing to accept the consequences of their action under the rule of law, they demonstrate their continued obedience to the social contract that they have entered with a people and government. By abiding by the rules of justice in this way, they maintain a moral high ground for disputing injustices; presumably more fundamental and significant ones committed by a government (typically).

My opponent also said:

"In conclusion, whilst civil disobedience can certainly be justified in countries where the citizens have no other option than to rise up against their oppressors, it is unacceptable in a democracy because in this type of country the government is the servant of the people and if the political party in power's performance is unsatisfactory the citizens have the opportunity to replace it with another at the next general election."

-Lets examine this idea of " if the political party in power's performance is unsatisfactory the citizens have the opportunity to replace it with another at the next general election."

You said yourself, in democracies such as Britain
"This is probably because Britain (as my opponent duly pointed out) does not have a constitution and also because all Acts of Parliament must be approved by the head of state, the monarch, who is not elected."

-What about the Brits? They do not elect their monarch, who has supreme rule over the land.

In conclusion, the bottom line is that civil disobedience is breaking of the law as a form of political protest. An act of law breaking can only be considered civil disobedience when the protester willingly accepts the punishments associated with crime he or she committed.

An important thing to keep in mind when discussing civil disobedience is that acts that the laws that the protester may be breaking may themselves not be objectionable. For instance, a common form of civil disobedience is disrupting traffic or trespassing on public property. In these instances, the protester is not protesting traffic laws or the laws of trespass. Instead, the protester is breaking the law in order to make a point. I argue that, by definition, civil disobedience includes a willingness to accept punishment associated with violating the law.

In this case, as long as all consequences of a protester's actions are accepted, it would be unacceptable to suggest that this is inappropriate. Every citizen has an obligation to follow laws of the country and state they live in. They also have the right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness". If one feels that their cause is just, and accepts the consequences of breaking the law, how is this inappropriate?
brian_eggleston

Con

My opponent's contention, if I summarise it correctly, is that civil disobedience can be justified if it results in a net benefit to society and that the perpetrator of the crime is willing to accept due punishment for his or her actions.

Yes, very noble and selfless indeed. To be prepared to sacrifice one's life or liberty in pursuit of the greater good is the ultimate act of chivalry and must be applauded. Except in a democracy.

You see, the question is: who is the judge of what is in the best interest of the general populace? The answer is the electorate, not a vocal minority.

Let's take the controversial issue of foxhunting, for example. This was recently outlawed in England, much to the chagrin of the rural toffs and the landed gentry to whom this bloodsport is so precious. Consequently, they organised a huge protest against the ban (I was outside the Houses of Parliament myself hurling abuse at the protesters as they marched by, as it happens) but despite their objections, hunting with dogs remains illegal because it was in the Labour Party manifesto in their election manifesto and the majority of the population voted for Labour to form a Government.

http://news.bbc.co.uk...

Mind you, foxhunting still takes place, albeit illegally, and the foxhunters hire thugs to intimidate and assault hunt saboteurs that try to film their nefarious activities or take the law into their own hands and beat animal-lovers up themselves.

http://www.realca.co.uk...
http://www.league.org.uk...
http://www.realca.co.uk...

My opponent's final argument was thus:

"In conclusion, the bottom line is that civil disobedience is breaking of the law as a form of political protest. An act of law breaking can only be considered civil disobedience when the protester willingly accepts the punishments associated with crime he or she committed."

There are many countries that imprison or otherwise punish people that break the law on the grounds of moral principal. Some would consider them refusniks or political prisoners. My own grandfather-in-law was a Czechoslovak insurgent who was imprisoned in Auschwitz because he helped resist the Nazi invasion of his country (he survived, by the way). In my mind, he was a hero of the highest order but his selfless acts of bravery were performed in the context of an invasion. In a democracy, one cannot legitimately break the law, no matter how unjust one thinks it is.
Debate Round No. 3
9 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 9 records.
Posted by brian_eggleston 8 years ago
brian_eggleston
Lol, Derek...everybody of my generation either hated Thatcher or loved her - nobody thought she was "okay, I suppose"!

Those heavy industries would have survived if they had been supported by the government, as they were in other European countries. For example, Britain now imports coal from Australia, even though we have vast deposits in our own country.

To be honest, when I am in Florida, I usually end up looking after my seven younger cousins who are all less than 14 so I don't get to go to the pub that often!
Posted by LearnLoveLiveLife 8 years ago
LearnLoveLiveLife
please consider which arguments are based on logical reasoning and which are more opinion with fancy words. you must give evidence to support opinions. logic is, well, logical.
Posted by Derek.Gunn 8 years ago
Derek.Gunn
You'd've been 21 at the time, and now you've got a tan, man and are speaking Spanish.
Hadn't realised Poll Tax was tied in with voting. No wonder Thatcher liked it so well.

Do you really suppose that those industries (mining, ship-building) would have survived had she not ... terminated them?

You now do physics work in Florida or do you just visit pubs?
Posted by brian_eggleston 8 years ago
brian_eggleston
Yes Derek. I was right outside the South African embassy in Trafalgar Square where the big fire was. Later the riot police corralled a few thousand of us into the centre of the square and charged us on horseback, clobbering protesters indiscriminately.

It was a long time ago and I don't remember any intellectuals referring to any peasants' revolt although socialists in general often talk about the Jarrow Crusade.

http://www.bbc.co.uk...

Jarrow is the town where I was born and my dad and grandfather were shipyard workers on the River Tyne, but thanks to Thatcher, the shipyards all closed down and we all had to move away. Most of the family ended up in Hawaii and Florida, so maybe it was a blessing in disguise!

The poll tax was the beginning of the end for Thatcher – the previous system called "the rates" were based on the size of your property but the poll tax was a flat tax whereby a burger jockey earning a pittance sharing a room in some doss-house would pay the same amount as Lord Snot living alone in a huge mansion in Chelsea! It was called the poll tax, by the way, because if you couldn't afford to pay it, you would not be eligible to vote.

I was invited to a posh party where she was also a guest when she was still Prime Minister. I still don't know how I stopped myself from grabbing a steak knife and running her through with it!
Posted by Derek.Gunn 8 years ago
Derek.Gunn
You were in the Poll Tax riots! Saw that on TV. Was pretty rough.
With only 2% support for it, the tax didn't have much of a future (and consequently, neither did Thatcher.)

Was there much reference to the Peasants Revolt of 1381?
Posted by JakeRoss 8 years ago
JakeRoss
Good Debate. I thought it was a great topic.
Posted by Puck 8 years ago
Puck
I'm not a native like yourself, brian. One of the forgotten convicts I'm afraid.
Posted by brian_eggleston 8 years ago
brian_eggleston
I didn't know the British slang word "chav" had crossed the Atlantic, puck.

And yes, they closed the West End which seriously inconvenienced some posh shoppers. On the plus side, however, there was widespread looting and the next day backstreet pubs in the East End were full chavs wearing Gucci clothes and Rolex watches!
Posted by Puck 8 years ago
Puck
You caused the closure of West-End, brian, how dare you.
Good of you to fight for the common chav though. :D
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