Civil disobedience – What it is, definition and concept

Civil disobedience is an act by which compliance with a certain norm is publicly rejected, in order to change the legislation that carries out said action.

Acts of civil disobedience consist of disobeying or not complying with a certain norm or legal imposition, but should not be confused with committing a simple illegality or infraction.

Civil disobedience goes further, seeks public acts in order to change a certain norm. That is to say, when carrying out said act of disobedience publicly, it seeks the visibility and support of public opinion in order to have more impact and depth.

Professor and political philosopher John Rawls defined civil disobedience as a “nonviolent, conscious and political public act, contrary to the law, usually committed for the purpose of causing a change in the law or in government programs.”

Legitimacy of civil disobedience

Professor Norberto Álvarez treats, like other authors, the legitimacy of civil disobedience. That is, if its use is justified or not.

For the author, any act of disobedience must meet two requirements:

The first is that there is no legal way to avoid said regulatory responsibility. Normally there are administrative and judicial remedies against the sanction imposed; There is also conscientious objection, whereby some responsibilities can be avoided with ethical and moral arguments. Well, according to the professor, if there is any legal and achievable way in practice, civil disobedience is delegitimized.

The second requirement is that there is a more than reasonable chance that our demands will be successful. That is to say, that the penalty that we are going to suffer for acts of disobedience are justified because there are probabilities of achieving something.

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Besides that the punishment is not of such extreme as the payment with the own life. To take an illuminating example, in a brutal dictatorship of a communist or fascist nature such as the Soviet or Italian, disobedience would not be legitimized, why? Totalitarianisms are the most radical regimes, where any type of dissent is punishable by death or with very high prison sentences.

Therefore, if this act is going to be punishable by death and, obviously, nothing is going to be achieved, this action would be delegitimized according to the author.

Characteristics of civil disobedience

Based on its definition and its elements, civil disobedience has the following characteristics:

  • It is directed against power, since through its practice the existing authority is challenged, not abiding by its legality.
  • Look for a change, usually in the law. The act not only covers the challenge to authority, but also a real change in what led to the act of disobedience.
  • These are non-violent acts, no attack is made against any person or institution. The damage that may be caused is against the individual who is the protagonist of the protest.
  • It is done publicly. If you want to seek change, the message has to get to the people. For this reason, these acts are carried out with people around, either on public roads or in institutional buildings.
  • It should not be confused with any crime, acts of disobedience have a moral and superior purpose for the one who is the protagonist. Personal gain is not sought.
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Examples of civil disobedience

We are going to see some concrete examples of civil disobedience.

Some of these practices were carried out by emblematic figures of the social struggle and pacifism as a form of protest.

  • March of salt (1930): India was a British colony, which had a monopoly on salt. The Indians had to pay a high tax to the Government in order to consume it. Gandhi, instigator of the pacifist movement for independence, along with a group of people traveled 380 kilometers to the coast and took a handful of salt. He urged all Indians to do the same. Thousands of people followed their example and the government took them for thieves. What it cost the imprisonment of the Indian leader and many other people.
  • Hunger strike: This is a practice widely used by those who seek to attract the attention of the authorities. It was also practiced by Gandhi, a fact that he carried out more than a dozen times. Like the previous case, to protest against the British colonization.
  • Strike: The labor strike is an act by which the workers of a company do not appear for their position in order to obtain a greater number of rights. Such as more days off, higher pay, better security, etc. It is a very common practice in many countries.
  • Female: This is the name of an activist organization with a feminist theme. In 2013, during an intervention by the Spanish Minister of Justice, three women from this organization broke into Congress with naked torso protesting against the ban on abortion.
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