On the duty of system disobedience
“I heartily accept the motto, -”That government is best which governs the least;” and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe,—“That government is best which governs not at all;” and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have. Government is at best but an expedient; but most governments are usually, and all governments are sometimes, inexpedient.”
This is how Thoreau started his essay on what he termed ‘civil disobedience’. He had spent a night in jail for refusing to pay his state poll tax in protest against the institution of slavery, the extermination of Native Americans, and the war against Mexico. He makes the argument that citizens of a country have a duty to disobey rules and laws of a government when those rules and laws are unjust. To him, our moral authority stands above the legal authority of a government.
One of Thoreau’s answer’s to the problem was to disengage from a society he believed to be too political and to turn to self-reliance. But he lived in a time where that might have been possible. In today’s interconnected society none of us can be truly self-reliant. There are no longer cabins in the woods that we can retreat to when distancing ourselves. Today, our sense of place in society is less to do with our location and more to do with the systems that affect us. A footballer driving a Porsche through the streets of London has a very different sense of that place than the homeless person walking those same streets. They are both in the same place but the systems that affect each of them are different.
We have an ethical duty, Thoreau says, to be sceptical of government. I say we have an ethical duty to be sceptical of the systems of our society; political, philosophical, economic, educational, media, community.
Understanding systems is hard. The way we’re usually taught to understand something is to break it down into separate parts. Want to make a meal? The recipe breaks it down into a step-by-step process. Want to build a new piece of furniture? Follow the instructions. Want to learn to programme? Start with the basics and advance to more complicated things later. This is how we organise knowledge to make it more manageable. But understanding systems doesn’t work that way. If we break the system into parts we can no longer see how those parts interact and affect each other, and it’s the relationships between the parts that make it a system.
But there are some patterns for systems that can help us think better about them. In systems, distinctions can be made between and among things; things can be organised into part-whole systems; relationships can be made between and among things; and things can be looked at from the perspectives of other things. In an educational system, the classes are whole distinct systems and at the same time part of a system of other classes that make up a school. And schools are whole systems that are also parts of a educational system, which are affected by funding and policy systems. When one of the school systems, say the heating, changes it affects many other systems, such as how people behave and how the budget is spent. How the system of moving people between classrooms works can be looked at from the perspective of crowd movement and flow dynamics, or from the mental health and stress perspective. Systems don’t break down into recipes or instruction manuals.
And people are the uniquely weird parts of any system. We are made up of many systems, parts of other systems, affected by them all, but at the same we can be aware of the system and their affects, which means we are able to exercise our individual conscience that allows us to decide to disobey the systems. When a person works within a system they are part of that system, which is why to Thoreau the only answer was to disengage.
Did Thoreau’s night in jail change the system? No, of course not. The American government of the time carried on doing what it was doing. But writing about his thoughts on civil disobedience inspired Mahatma Gandhi when he was creating his concept of Satyagraha (non-cooperation). The idea of non-violent resistance helped to bring to an end the British rule over India. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was inspired by Thoreau and Gandhi. He adapted ideas about civil disobedience to the civil rights movement in the United States for the right to vote, desegregation, labour rights and other rights for people of colour.
In fact, it’s not much a stretch to say that ‘On the duty of civil disobedience’ was the bedrock for how protest and political activism are approached today. Thoreau didn’t affect the systems he was in, but his work affected the creation of entirely new systems for making the world a better place.
That’s the thing about doing work within systems; we can never know what change they might cause in another time and another place.
There is a need to directly fight injustice, of course there is, but any fight can only be conducted from within the system, as part of the system. We can and should also follow in the footsteps of Thoreau and do what we can to influence the creation of better systems in the future.
For an act to be civilly disobedient, it must involve some breach of law. For an act to be system disobedient, it simply has to involve a vision of a better future. We can all do that.