Civil disobedience

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Civil disobedience is the time-honored practice of breaking the law as a protest in favor of a principle or to stand up for human rights. Famous examples include the actions of Henry David Thoreau, Rosa Parks, the satyagraha[Note 1] philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi (and later adopted by Martin Luther King), the 1989 student-led anti-government protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, and the September 2007 mass protests led by Buddhist monks in Myanmar.

Thoreau coined the term when he wrote a famous essay entitled Civil Disobedience about his refusal to pay a poll tax because of his opposition to slavery and the Mexican-American War. In this original formulation, it referred to refusing to follow a law because that law was unjust, or led to injustice. However, the term is now used to refer to any disobedience, even if it's not connected to the injustice being protested.

As a general rule, those who participate in civil disobedience expect to go to prison or even die for their actions. Though there is some overlap, this is unlike denialism, which would, in defense, attempt to deny the law exists in the first place, or sovereignism, which effectively claims that the law exists, unexists, or means something else according to convenience of the sovereign in question.

Non-violence is the centerpiece of successful civil disobedience actions since any overt show of force would likely be met with movement-halting massacre that the ruling authorities would chalk up to "they had it coming". The term "non-violence", though, is often stretched to include any action that does not result in direct physical injury, including blocking movement or even vandalism.

Passive resistance[edit]

Passive resistance can be envisaged as the use of inertia as a weapon. By refusing to comply with orders or to perform normal activities (e.g. sitting in roads and blocking traffic) the protester can tie up law enforcement and cause disruption without aggression.

Since maintaining a passive, nonviolent approach to protest requires tremendous discipline, frequently directly in the face of police brutality, many peaceful demonstrations break down into more violent, active events (e.g. throwing stones, etc.).

Not to be confused with passive aggression, which is a psychiatric term often misused to dismiss behavior that is fully aggressive or assertive, but (usually) legal and/or polite. For example, a party animal may host rowdy parties with many belligerently drunk guests; if a neighbor calls the police to shut down the party or the party animal finds a note on his door the next morning asking him to be more considerate to his neighbors, the animal might view this behavior as passive-aggressive since his neighbors did not come "tell it to his face" "man to man". But it is not passive-aggression nor is it passive-resistance. It is assertive behavior telling him to stop.


African Americans occupy a segregated eatery.
  • Loosely, during the Irish Land Wars (1870 - 1890 sporadically) General Boycott was ostracized and many thousand law officers were deployed at great expense - hence the term 'boycott'.
  • Henry David Thoreau went to jail rather than pay a tax in support of the Mexican-American war, which also would have extended the institution of slavery.
  • The British "suffragette" movement used passive resistance to great effect (chaining themselves to doors and vehicles, etc.).
  • Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi's opposition to British rule in India is often used as the classic example of passive resistance. He used other words and added a spiritual element to his actions, calling the resulting practice Satyagraha, which he distinguished from passive resistance.
  • Rosa Parks and other African-Americans were arrested for sitting in areas on buses and other public places that were reserved for "whites-only" in the course of a campaign against discrimination.
  • 'Sit ins' are often used as a means of protest. Road construction, airport runway extension and access to government or military facilities have all been opposed or prevented by masses of people lying or sitting down to prevent access. A forefather to the sit-in was the sit-down strike, in which workers would refuse to leave their place of work. These were first used by IWW workers during the early 20th century, and was most dramatically used in Flint, Michigan by UAW workers. The sit-in was widely used in the American Civil Rights Movement, with examples in Wichita, Kansas, Oklahoma City, and the most famous in Greensboro, North Carolina, among many others. It was also employed by Gandhi's non-violent resistance movement, and remains a popular means of protest to this day.

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  1. Also known as non violent resistance.