The Strange Modern Pantomime of Civil Disobedience

, the California Supreme Court affirmed that when the voters of California amended their state constitution so as to restrict “marriage” to opposite-sex couples, they were exercising their legal prerogative to do so.

Why bother to have a government if it cannot restrict people’s rights? And in the finest form of government — that is, democracy — it is the majority that gets to decide which minorities’ rights get restricted in which ways. Thusly the California Supreme Court ruled. Sort of.

I haven’t read the ruling too closely, nor am I really qualified to do so, but from what commentary I have read by people who have credentials and training in law, it seems as though the court has ruled that the people of California may take away “marriage” from same-sex couples, but only to the extent that this doesn’t have any effect at all on their legal rights and privileges. In other words, the people can refuse to let their government call same-sex marriages “marriages” but they cannot direct their government to discriminate against those marriages in terms of their legal standing.

If true, that’s not much of a defeat for gay rights advocates, and not much of a victory for the traditional-marriage partisans.

But, in any case, so far has the tide of opinion on this subject turned during the past several years, that instead of gay rights advocates seeing this as a small setback in the context of an ongoing victory in their battle for equal rights, they are seeing it as an outrage against the equal rights they already assume belong to all of us.

It’s this sort of uncompromising assertion of dignity that has gotten the gay rights movement so far so fast in recent years.

But today I got distracted thinking about one of the ways this outrage expressed itself: by more than 100 people getting arrested for blocking a city street.

This is a peculiar and popular form of protest. It bears some resemblance to civil disobedience, but is really its own, distinct phenomenon. In true civil disobedience, one of the following two conditions must hold:

  1. Either the law that you are breaking is itself immoral in some way, and that is the reason you are breaking it,
  2. or, although the law itself might be unobjectionable to you, you are acting to prevent a wrong (or promote a good) in a way that requires you to incidentally break that law.

So, for instance, people breaking the Fugitive Slave Act by operating a station on the Underground Railroad were breaking a law that they believed was itself an immoral, unjust law. Many tax resisters believe that it is immoral and unjust to force people to pay for, say, the war in Iraq, or the salaries of government torturers. On the other hand, people who are arrested at blockades aren’t usually opposed to laws against trespassing or blocking traffic or whatever they end up being charged with — they are violating those laws incidentally to performing some action that they hope will lead to some greater good or prevent some greater harm.

But in the case of the people who were arrested blocking the street in San Francisco last night — and much the same is true of most other so-called “civil disobedience” actions I’ve seen in recent years — they were neither asserting that laws against blocking traffic were immoral, nor were they saying that blocking traffic was a way of preventing some greater harm that would be caused by allowing that traffic to proceed as normal.

Instead, getting-arrested — whatever the charge and whatever the action leading to it — was itself the point, and seemed to be mostly a way of publicizing and amplifying one’s sense of outrage, anguish, or commitment. Less like a civil disobedience action, it was more like the action of a mourner who wails and covers himself in ashes, or a penitent who whips himself with a lash. Being arrested has become a sort of government-sponsored method of certifying the strength of one’s opinion.

Some excerpts from an article covering the arrests:

Earlier in , police arrested more than 100 protesters blocking Van Ness Avenue near the Civic Center after giving the chanting, sign-waving crowd more than an hour to vent its anger and sadness. Many of those arrested were released in time to return for the evening event.

Shortly after , officers began arresting anti-Prop. 8 protesters, starting with clergy members. The arrests went so smoothly they seemed choreographed — which in a way they almost were, considering the police and protest organizers had been talking for days to make sure everything went smoothly and peacefully.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Rabbi Sydney Mintz of Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco said of her decision to protest Prop. 8, shortly before she was led off with wrists tied.

Mintz received her citation and was back on the street by 6 p.m., this time with her 8-year-old son Gabe Newbrun-Mintz, who said his mother’s arrest was “sad.”

But she stayed in the street “so that they would know she was serious about the civil rights,” he said.

Mintz said, “The police handled it very, very well and I think we made our point.”

None of this is necessarily bad, though it is a little weird when you pause to think about it. No weirder than sackcloth & ashes or self-flagellation, though, I suppose. I’m struck by the phrase “Mintz received her citation” in the above excerpt, phrasing that would apply equally well to a summons to appear in court for a violation of the law as to an official commendation of praiseworthy action.

But while this sort of thing seems mostly harmless, I am worried that people have come to confuse this sort of theatrical arrest-as-protest activity with genuine civil disobedience, and so are losing track of the actual practical power that well-crafted civil disobedience campaigns and actions have.

Much later, I read the essay The Modern Martyr by G.K. Chesterton, which covered some of the same ground more than a century before I got around to it. ―♇