Ineffective Civil Disobedience
Since the beginning of civilization, humanity has faced issues such as inequality and injustice. The victims of these issues demand their rights be met, but without any substantial leverage, their demands go unanswered. In 1849, the American philosopher Thoreau published “In Resistance to Civil Government,” an essay in which he introduces a method for the people to enact change in government. Thoreau advocates non-violent resistance to unjust laws through non-cooperation (Yarborough). This method of nonviolent resistance was highly effective in the hands of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. against democratic governments; however, Nelson Mandela was forced to abandon nonviolence in his fight against a republic in South Africa. The concept of civil disobedience that Thoreau outlined in “In Resistance to Civil Government” may not be a plausible strategy in a non-democratic government.
Henry David Thoreau saw his neighbors obeying laws they did not support, and he questioned their hypocrisies. Thoreau believed individual were obligated to resist unjust laws through non-participation, accepting all of the penalties that breaking the law might bring (McElroy). If the individual instead supports an unjust government, the individual disgraces himself. He based his ideas on the principle that if the people do not cooperate, a law cannot stand (McElroy). Despite Thoreau’s argument that government cannot stand without the support of the people, history shows that civil disobedience may not be effective in a non-democratic government.
An inspirational Indian leader emerged early in the 20th century. Mohandas Gandhi used Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience to put an end to Great Britain’s control of India. Similar to Thoreau, Gandhi believed that “every citizen was responsible for every action of their government,” (“Gandhi”). The strategy that Gandhi adopted to disobey the laws and regulations set down by the British Monarch was guided by his belief that “disobedience that is wholly civil should never provoke retaliation,” (“Gandhi”). This strategy was one based partly on religion but also on the practicality of civil disobedience (Murphy). For the people of India, Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience was successful in earning independence from the British Monarch.
In the United States, an influential leader arose from the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Martin Luther King Jr. adopted Thoreau’s principles of civil disobedience as the ideals of the African Americans’ efforts to gain racial equality (“King”). King relied on a belief that justice would prevail (“King”), and that any harm done against them would be a catalyst to their cause (“Martin”). Eventually this strategy led to the end of segregation in the United States, winning African Americans the equality they sought.
A similar movement occurred in the mid 20th century in South Africa, where black Africans were fighting a system of apartheid headed by white Africans. One young black African, Nelson Mandela, became an important figure in the movement against the apartheid. Mandela initially accepted Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience as an effective strategy for his cause and joined the African National Congress (“Nelson”). After a spectacle of violence where the government opened fire against ANC demonstrators in Sharpeville, South Africa, Mandela abandoned his nonviolence stance (Bhathya, McKenna, Tikkanen, and Young). Disillusioned, he decided that violence was the only choice: “I, and some colleagues, came to the conclusion that as violence in this country was inevitable, it would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence,” (“Unity”). After leaving the country unlawfully and traveling abroad to help organize their cause, Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment, barely escaping the death penalty (“Nelson”). He faced a government that disregarded the views and rights of the people, a non-democratic government that used violence to instill fear in its citizens as a method of control. Such a government cannot be affected by moral acts of disobedience.
Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. used Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience successfully against established democracies. India had come under rule of the British monarch crown in 1858 (“Timeline: India”). Through reform in the early 1800s, Great Britain had established a parliamentary democracy (“British”), and it was this democracy that Gandhi fought for India’s independence. King led the civil rights movement in the United States of America, a country which had been formed under the premise of democracy. The governments had to respond to demonstrators of civil disobedience in both cases, but punishments for demonstrators could not exceed short jail time sentences without causing outcry. In democracies, the right to control government is bestowed upon the people. This right allows individuals that do not share it the ability to influence people that do. The rights given to the people make civil disobedience an effective strategy against a democracy.
In South Africa, Nelson Mandela faced a government that was not a democracy. The National Party, consisting of white Africans, took over South Africa in 1948 and adopted an apartheid policy. South Africa was ruled a republic in 1961 (“Timeline: South Africa”). Mandela’s strategy of civil disobedience became unrealistic after violence was used against the demonstrators at one rally. Seventy people were killed in the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 (“Timeline: South Africa”), bringing Mandela to the realization that nonviolence was no longer plausible. Mandela also faced extended jail time, which the black Africans could do nothing about. This inability to influence the government’s policies made nonviolent civil disobedience an ineffective strategy for Nelson Mandela and the ANC.
Nonviolent civil disobedience and demonstrations have failed in other non-democratic nations as well. In 1989, a protest of over a million people in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, was quickly dispersed when tanks of the People’s Liberation Army entered the square and troops began firing into the crowds. Hundreds were killed and thousands were injured (Kristof). As recently as June of 2009, demonstrations in Iran were answered with violence when civilians protested against the election of incumbent president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (“Violence”). In Georgia, peaceful demonstrations were answered with violence: “On November 7, 2007, [Georgian] government forces used violent and excessive force to disperse a series of largely peaceful demonstrations in the capital, Tbilisi,” (“Crossing”). These countries relied on violence to control nonviolent demonstrators, a method that would have resulted in great public outcry in democratic nations.
Thoreau’s concept of civil disobedience is an effective method of deriving change in a democratic government. This is evident in the examples of Mohandas Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King Jr. in the United States. Unfortunately, in most cases where civil disobedience is used in non-democratic countries, the governments turn to violence and the people fall short of their causes. Nelson Mandela in Africa is only one of many examples of the ineffectiveness of civil disobedience against non-democratic governments. These examples give proof that civil disobedience is not a plausible strategy against a non-democratic government.
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