Uncivil Civil Society

Uncivil disobedience in an uncivil society

Editors’ Note: Candice Delmas continues HistPhil‘s forum on “Uncivil Civil Society” with a defense of uncivil disobedience.

There is a ‘crisis of civility’, we are told, an ‘epidemic of incivility.’ We must #ReviveCivility to preserve our fragile bonds in civil society. We need to break free of our online bubbles and learn to talk and listen to our opponents. We don’t have to be nice, but we must remain civil when we disagree: we must treat our opponents with respect if we want to persuade them, or else they will feel attacked and alienated.

The same line of argument that applies to disagreement extends to dissent and disobedience. Many people think that dissident protest should generally remain lawful in liberal democratic societies, because of its potential to destabilize society, especially if it occurs on a mass scale and/or frequent basis. Disobedience can nonetheless be tolerated, when and to the extent that it is civil. Uncivil disobedience, however, lies beyond the pale.

A common conception of civil disobedience can be found in liberal philosophy, history textbooks about the Civil Rights movement, media, and public opinion (political theorist Erin Pineda offers a powerful critique of such dominant and historically misguided conception in her book, Seeing Like an Activist, and in her contribution to this forum). This conception dictates that for an act of disobedience to be civil, it must be public (done in the open and non-anonymously), nonviolent (non-injurious to persons and non-destructive of property), non-evasive (the agent must willingly accept arrest, prosecution, and punishment), and not disrespectful toward one’s opponent. This last requirement evokes the modern sense of civility as politeness: it is a matter of social norms (rather than Kantian respect for persons) and prohibits conduct such as shouting angrily at one’s opponents, insulting them, or desecrating their places of worship. An act of principled disobedience that fails to satisfy one or more of these marks of civility, then, is uncivil.

While some theorists contend that all acts of principled disobedience inevitably convey contempt for democratic processes, moral self-indulgence, and epistemic arrogance, most theorists deny that this is true of civil disobedience. They see in the civility of civil disobedience a demonstration of the self-restraint and seriousness of its agent, an assurance of his or her respect for democracy and ‘fidelity to law’, in John Rawls’s phrase. Related to these expressive considerations backing the calls for civility and prohibition of uncivil disobedience are instrumentalist concerns regarding the latter’s counterproductivity.

Some social scientists have found that violence, even when it is justified (such as in cases of self-defense and defense of fellow protesters), ‘carries steep risks for protesters’, insofar as it tends to depress movement turnout, intensify repression, generate observers’ support for such repression, and increase sympathy toward opponents. Violence in protest, according to this research, greatly compromises movements’ chances of success. Philosophers also stress uncivil disobedience’s counterproductivity. They argue that a social movement that relies on uncivil tactics is doomed to fail, because it will fail at the essential task of ‘moral suasion’, alienating, instead of winning, potential allies.

This objection against uncivil disobedience is logically, morally, and politically problematic. First, to the extent that it appeals to the social scientific evidence just mentioned, it lumps uncivil disobedience with violence, ignoring the fact that acts of uncivil disobedience may not be violent. Disobedient acts may be uncivil in virtue of being covert, evasive, or deeply offensive, without necessarily involving any violence or use of force. Yet theorists tend to generalize the social scientific findings on violence in protest to cover any kind of non-civil disobedience. Such generalization is unwarranted. There is no support for the general proposition that uncivil tactics—especially covert or evasive actions—alienate the public. For instance, not knowing the identity of ‘Deep Throat’, the secret informant who provided information to the Washington Post about President Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate scandal, did not alienate the public or generate sympathy for Nixon. Knowing that many physicians covertly provide contraception and abortion services where these are illegal, and seek to evade law enforcement, does not alienate the public further away from the reproductive justice movement.

Second, the objection against uncivil disobedience suggests inefficacy in general, when it is in fact focused on counterproductivity narrowly understood as inefficacy at moral suasion. But uncivil tactics may well be effective at whatever they are used for; and persuading observers may not be agents’ goal. When activists used deception and force against a slave patrol, it was to defend enslaved persons’ life and freedom. When activists attack whaling ships, it is to protect whales from hunting. When they provide illegal shelter, food, and aid to unauthorized migrants, it is to help the migrants in need. When they storm the offices of a pharmaceutical company, spattering walls with fake blood, it is to protest the company’s murderous indifference to people with HIV/AIDS. These tactics are uncivil: Black abolitionists embraced violent resistance; a U.S. court has declared the conservation group Sea Shepherd to be ‘pirates’ given their aggressive actions against whalers; pro-migrant Sanctuary assistance is covert and evasive; and the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP)’s ‘zaps’ (guerilla protests) damaged private property and were condemned as too confrontational, disrespectful, and antagonizing. Activists’ aims may simply not include moral suasion as they deploy such uncivil tactics. And there is no evidence that these tactics harm the broader movement from within which they are deployed. For instance, ACT UP’s confrontational tactics helped draw the public attention to the AIDS epidemy and ‘turbocharged the L.G.B.T.Q. movement in ways that no one dreamed possible, fueling one of the fastest social transformations in human history’, according to a recent New York Times article.

Third, we should not take for granted uncivil disobedience’s inefficacy at moral suasion either. The case for uncivil disobedience’s counterproductivity is the most plausible regarding, not covertness and evasion, but rather violence and disrespect. People widely condemn confrontational and coercive tactics, majorly disruptive activities (such as roadblocks), violence and threats of force, looting and property destruction, expressions of rage, and animosity toward opponents, as wholly counterproductive and antithetical to the goal of winning allies. In response, note that activists may not intend to address the public at large, but instead the very people whom the movement is supposed to benefit, with the aim of building and galvanizing the movement. To the extent that they address the public, activists may well want to jolt rather than coax the majority; and such jolting might be effective at moral suasion in the long run, as ACT UP evinces. More recently, the loose network of activist groups coalesced as Black Lives Matter, without pleading or seeking moral suasion, has successfully drawn attention to police brutality, its disproportionate impact on communities of color, and the lethal urgency of ending it. The mass participation in the protests of 2020 (a staggering 6-10% of the US population is estimated to have taken part) suggests it may well have changed white people’s hearts and minds in the process (although they have not come to embrace the movement’s call to ‘defund the police’). Finally, the proverbial jury is still out on whether violent and uncivil protest tactics are in fact counterproductive. Studies have shown not just a negative ‘radical flank effect’ but also a positive one for social movements. Even riots—the epitome of supposedly counterproductive uncivil disobedience—can draw public attention, trigger citizens’ empathy, prompt investigations, and lead to reform.

Those who emphasize uncivil disobedience’s alleged counterproductivity present it as a general factual truth, when it is instead a conjecture. And yet the very existence of this conjecture makes it more likely to come true. The idea that uncivil disobedience is counterproductive buttresses the widespread calls for civility in protest by predicting the failure of uncivil tactics. The underlying reasoning is in part that uncivil disobedience will fail because people will perceive it as counterproductive. This reasoning facilitates the unfolding of a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts, as observers might be turned off by activists resorting to uncivil tactics and not tempted to join or support the movement, because of their expectation that others will be turned off, too, and that the movement will therefore fail. In this way, uncivil disobedience’s counterproductivity supports the status quo that activists are trying to unsettle, by restricting the repertoire of acceptable tactics they may use in the process. Activists are caught in a bind: either they elect civil tactics, thereby demonstrating their endorsement of the demand for civility in protest, or they resort to uncivil tactics, which people might simply declare to be counterproductive, thereby confirming the injunction to civility. Either way, added to the activist’s burden of trying to effect social change is the extra burden of working with or around the common notion that uncivil disobedience is counterproductive. This orthodox wisdom constitutes an unfair burden and a kind of injustice. Philosopher Amia Srinivasan has similarly lamented the common perception of the counterproductivity of anger, which works to both stifle anger’s value as a source of motivation, self-respect, and knowledge, and to erase its intrinsic aptness.

Uncivil disobedience’s counterproductivity, then, constitutes a crucial tool in the arsenal of ‘a counter-resistance ideology’ that preserves the status quo and works to the detriment of progressive social movements, as I argue in my book, A Duty to Resist. This tool’s efficacy depends on laypersons’ and theorists’ uncritical acceptance of uncivil disobedience’s counterproductivity. To put it simply, uncivil tactics might not be counterproductive (to the extent that they are) if people didn’t expect them to be or didn’t expect others to perceive them as such. Just imagine the public at large were open to the potential justification of uncivil disobedience, or inclined to see it as a fitting response to the incivility of politics and of civil society. To get there from here, we must critique and broaden the repertoire of potentially acceptable tactics to include uncivil disobedience.

-Candice Delmas

Candice Delmas is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Political Science at Northeastern University. She works in philosophy of law, ethics, and social and political philosophy. She is the author of A Duty to Resist: When Disobedience Should Be Uncivil (Oxford University Press, 2018).

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