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Civil disobedience refers to a general act of peacefully disobeying specific government policies or laws that the citizens feel may violate their rights. This category of resisting citizens is ready and willing to face the legal consequences of their actions. Civil disobedience can be expressed in the forms of refusal to pay taxes, bus boycott, a sit in at lunch counter and walking to work place. David HenryThoreau (2008) described ‘civil disobedience’ as an active nonviolent resistance to certain laws, policies and requirements of the government. He argues that it is the sole responsibility of every citizen to oppose any form of dictatorship or oppression by the government in quest of democracy and good governance. Thoreau himself protested against paying poll tax that was meant to fund Mexican –American war and expanding slavery’s territory into Mexico. Thoreau’s work influenced a number of personalities who later practiced civil disobedience in their respective states. Such personalities included Martin Luther Junior, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Buber.
Civil disobedience is both good and bad for democracy. In a democratic society or state, the constitution contains fundamental bills of rights which clearly stipulate rights, freedoms and responsibilities of each and every citizen. The most elementary of the rights are freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of association and right to good governance. The democratic constitution also provides for impartiality of the constitutional laws and respect for human dignity. The citizens are therefore mandated to freely and peacefully express their objections either through demonstration or go slow upon violation of the right by the civil and government authorities.
In a separate count, a number of individuals have opposed the idea of civil disobedience being good for democracy. Rawl argues that typical of any democratic society, few disgruntled individuals who are inherently disobedient to the law express themselves (personal opinion) to the majority in pretext that their rights have been violated by lawmakers and civil leaders. Rawl is categorical that civil disobedience can only be justified when specified conditions are met by the protecting civilian. He gives these conditions as follows: the disobedience must be in response to an incidence of a clear or considerable unfairness after negotiations have failed particularly on matters that affect the minority and marginalized groups.
Rawl’s explanation has been widely criticized on the basis that it fails to clearly differentiate between necessary civil disobedience and the one that people have rights to commit. John Mackie argues that it is not right to do what is morally wrong as ‘Wrong actions are acts we are morally required not to perform’.
David Thoreau stated that governments are never right because they are generally more harmful than being beneficial to the common citizens. Given that democracy is based on majority rule, it cannot help to get rid of the injustice committed by the government because majorities cannot automatically authenticate qualities of understanding and fairness. Thoreau further maintains that the judgment of ethics of an individual is not necessarily determined by an imminent opinion of the majority. Therefore, it is a duty of an individual to do what one think is morally right at any given time. The state is now not only unjust but also dishonest while collecting funds to sponsor the war on Mexico and holding slaves. According to Thoreau, paying taxes is like practically supporting injustice. Therefore, he chose to refuse to pay the poll tax as a way of ensuring honesty.
In conclusion, civil disobedience is good for democracy in cases where the stipulated rights of civilians are grossly violated and bad for a democracy when the rights, responsibilities and freedoms of citizens are provided for but the citizens still want to break the existing common laws in the name of civil disobedience.