Academic journal article Education Next

Rules for Breaking the Law

Academic journal article Education Next

Rules for Breaking the Law

Article excerpt

I was alarmed to learn from James Lopach and Jean Luckowski ("Uncivil Disobedience," Features, Spring 2005) that some high schools are recom-mending a thoughtless embrace of civil disobedience in their civics classes. The authors are right to remind us that civil disobedience is a dangerous tool, one that needs to be carefully thought through before it is justified or praised.

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I would only add that nonviolence is even more central to justified civil disobedience than is "accepting punishment openly and respectfully."

Consider that Thoreau was quite happy to avoid punishment during the years he refused to pay his poll tax. And when he was put in the Concord lockup, he was happy to walk free after a single night, when a friend paid his tax for him. He did not publicly walk into Town Hall and announce that he was refusing to pay his tax and insist on punishment. Martin Luther King, in some sense, wanted thousands of protesters to go to jail since this would bring publicity to the protest. And Socrates--who in the Crito refused to escape Athens to avoid the death penalty--had argued in his trial that he did not deserve punishment at all, but rather deserved to be treated like an Olympic hero!

It seems okay for those who protest injustice to avoid punishment (in legal ways) if they can, to defend themselves assiduously, to hire lawyers, to take the easy way out as Thoreau did, or to argue that they should be spared punishment entirely, as Socrates did. …

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