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Aaron Scott
Aaron Scott

Disobedience [EXCLUSIVE]

The award was open to people and groups working in any discipline anywhere in the world, including, but not limited to, scientific research, civil rights, freedom of speech, human rights, and the freedom to innovate. By rewarding thoughtful, nonviolent acts of disobedience, we hoped to raise the public profile of these activities and ultimately inspire new agents of change.


When I converse with the freest of my neighbors, I perceive that,whatever they may say about the magnitude and seriousness of thequestion, and their regard for the public tranquillity, the long andthe short of the matter is, that they cannot spare the protection ofthe existing government, and they dread the consequences to theirproperty and families of disobedience to it. For my own part, I shouldnot like to think that I ever rely on the protection of the State.But, if I deny the authority of the State when it presents itstax-bill, it will soon take and waste all my property, and so harassme and my children without end. This is hard. This makes it impossiblefor a man to live honestly, and at the same time comfortably, inoutward respects. It will not be worth the while to accumulateproperty; that would be sure to go again. You must hire or squatsomewhere, and raise but a small crop, and eat that soon. You mustlive within yourself, and depend upon yourself always tucked up andready for a start, and not have many affairs. A man may grow rich inTurkey even, if he will be in all respects a good subject of theTurkish government. Confucius said: "If a state is governed by theprinciples of reason, poverty and misery are subjects of shame; if astate is not governed by the principles of reason, riches and honorsare the subjects of shame." No: until I want the protection ofMassachusetts to be extended to me in some distant Southern port,where my liberty is endangered, or until I am bent solely onbuilding up an estate at home by peaceful enterprise, I can affordto refuse allegiance to Massachusetts, and her right to my propertyand life. It costs me less in every sense to incur the penalty ofdisobedience to the State than it would to obey. I should feel as if Iwere worth less in that case.

Not quite a clarion call to civil disobedience, but the door is clearly ajar. Civil disobedience has been defined as a "public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to law [and] usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government."3 Supporters have said that civil disobedience, in part, calls public attention to a "discrepancy between moral standards and some law, policy, or state of affairs."4 Yet detractors claim that it also represents disrespect for the legal system at best, and risks civil incohesion and chaos at worst. If we all feel quite comfortable breaking rules we don't like, civil society will crumble. Respect for the law is critical to maintaining the very fabric of a just society. Consequently, even bad laws, which we should work to change, should be respected. As Abraham Lincoln put it, "bad laws, if they exist, should be repealed as soon as possible, still while they continue in force, for the sake of example, they should be religiously observed."5

Much debate has surrounded individual acts of civil disobedience; what sorts of disobedience exist, which can be justified using what rationales, and so on. Traditional criteria for 'acceptable' acts of civil disobedience include that the protest be open and nonviolent, punishment for breaking the law be accepted, the situation under protest be widely recognized as wrong, and that the protest be likely to improve the situation or at least not make it worse. Some of these criteria are addressed elsewhere in this month's Virtual Mentor.6,7 For physicians, specific forms of individual advocacy have also been spelled out, including the use of civil disobedience, along with an increasingly stringent set of justifications depending on the risk a proposed action might pose to our patients and the public.1

Criteria for acts of individual civil disobedience are important, but they do not recognize the special role of organized professions in changing and repairing society through acts of collective advocacy, including civil disobedience when necessary. To realize this potential, we will need a reinvigorated understanding of the proper role of professions in society.

The American medical profession is ultimately responsible for stewardship of the nation's health. Patient by patient and community by community, we are charged with ensuring adequate access to care, appropriate and safe delivery of care, and proper attention to resource allocation within the health care system. Though we cannot, alone, make political decisions, as a group the medical profession must sometimes force itself on political processes that are failing to serve the health needs of our patients. If doing so effectively means using organized civil disobedience following careful debate within professional deliberative structures, then that is what we should do. When used within the professional framework, civil disobedience is a tool for repairing, not tearing, the social fabric of a good society.

Civil disobedience is the refusal to comply with certain laws as a form of protest. Often these are valid laws, such as a prohibition on obstructing ingress or egress to a building. The First Amendment generally does not protect such acts.

When a crowd of protesters is in a place that police believe the crowd cannot lawfully be, the police must carefully distinguish between those protesters who intend to be arrested for civil disobedience, and those protesters who do not know their presence is unlawful. The best police practice is individualized commands to leave on threat of arrest, followed by a realistic opportunity to leave. Thus, during the spontaneous anti-war mass march in Chicago at the start of the Iraq War in 2003, it was unlawful for police to arrest 900 people on Chicago Avenue without first notifying them that they must disperse or be arrested.

Several nonprofit organizations, including the National Lawyers Guild and the Ruckus Society, offer civil disobedience training for protesters. Several others, including ACT UP and War Resisters League, offer free toolkits.

Protest leaders should be careful to inform participants of what they can expect. Be sensitive to the fact that some individuals are more vulnerable to arrest than others. For example, some data shows that there are disparities in how police use force against white people vs. people of color, and noncitizens may be at particular risk. See the Center for Constitutional Rights for more information on what to consider before participating in civil disobedience.

Without purporting to be exhaustive, let us consider some of the ways in which Snowden, along with many other national security whistleblowers, puts pressure on traditional models of civil disobedience.

Hannah Arendt was already reflecting on civil disobedience in 1970, studying how it could become a lively and intrinsic part of pluralistic democracies. The reality is that the disobedient are treated as plain criminals, even more if the disobedience focusses on the internet. Admittedly, civil disobedience is a social phenomena, which is not easy to handle for policy makers. To my knowledge, there is no law in any jurisdiction that directly addresses civil disobedience and there is no lawful right of citizens to practice it. The opposite is the case. Robin Celikates, a scholar of political philosophy, describes civil disobedience in a minimal definition1 as an

Furthermore, civil disobedience pursues a communicative intention, meaning that the motivating principles should be communicated. Even though there is no right of civil disobedience, it is often argued that there is a moral right (Lefkowitz, 2007) or even a duty to oppose policies and court rulings and their enforcement under certain circumstances. Usually, the disobedient relies on the belief in a so-called prima-facie-illegality (Dreier, 1983, p. 56), meaning that something is illegal at the time of the protest but becomes lawful later on, possibly as a consequence of the protest.

Snowden and Manning could be forerunners of a larger movement. How policy makers will deal with these new forms of dissent will have consequences for civil rights and the capacities of modern democracies to learn. Rationally reflecting upon their actions in a political context, is no task for policy makers alone. It is the duty of society as a whole, as civil disobedience not only addresses politicians in a particular public debate, but first of all, civil society.

Recently, prominent tactics have been discussed as digital forms of civil disobedience. Using the technology and infrastructure of the internet as a tool (and sometimes taking place online), they are, among other:

In Europe, some tribunals struggled to judge civil disobedience taking into account dynamics of the internet6. In 2005, the EU Council raised new minimal standards for computer and internet crime-related court rulings within European member states. The implementation of these standards in the German criminal law for example, namely mentions DDoS attacks under article 303b as a case of computer sabotage. From a philosophical point of view, it is remarkable that the motivation of the party engaging in online criminal activity is legally not taken into account. On the other hand, the varying definitions and the underdeveloped public discourse about digital forms of civil disobedience does not provide policy makers with any orientation. This struggle involves questions about the understanding of democracy, including civil rights and duties. Answers to these questions have direct consequences on jurisdiction and internet policy, which in turn are constitutive of the future of digital protest and civil rights online and offline. 041b061a72


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