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Change Through Disobedience

Categories: Civil Disobedience

Mainstream culture and entertainment tend to romanticize the idea of rebelling. Rebelling and disobedience are portrayed as a heroic way to defend justice. The idea of disobedience being an effective method of facilitating justice validates itself in a historical context. Throughout history, people collectively disobeying the government directly caused the abolishment of unjust laws and the institution of more just laws. Disobedience against the government has undeniably been instrumental to social progress throughout the course of the United States’ history by forcing the government to institute fair and equal laws.

Disobedience continues to pave the way for social progress. Rebelling, whether civil or forceful, forces a response from the individual or institution imposing injustice. Disobedience against a government that promotes unfair policies causes that government to respond in some capacity, whether it be through retaliation or disacknowledgement. According to the famously non-violent civil rights advocate Martin Luther King Junior in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, “there are two types of laws: There are just and there are unjust laws”.

This simplification of right and wrong enforces the need for disobedience, as it remains the most effective way to change unjust laws. Furthermore, the changing of unjust laws is the foundation for social progress. The progression of society is directly linked to the laws that govern it. Therefore, for social progression to occur, unjust laws must be changed, and disobedience against the government has proven to be the most efficient way of changing unjust laws. Protests such as the one shown in Source D during the civil rights movement directly led to the government being forced to institute equal, just laws and abolish the unjust ones.

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Without disobedience, people of color would still be discriminated against and treated unfairly. Through disobeying the unjust laws rooted in racism and discrimination, the laws were then abolished and changed. Through disobedience, the people compel their government to enforce social progress in legislation.

Civil disobedience demonstrates the moral superiority of the social progress it seeks to initiate. The idea that the government requires consent and approval from the citizens it governs has been endorsed throughout history. In his essay “Of The Original Contract”, David Hume argues that other than historical instances of violent revolts, “all lawful government arises from the consent of the people”. When someone is disobedient against the government, they are blatantly not consenting to the way their government is governing. If a government no longer has the consent of its people, it is forced to change. Through the use of disobedience, those who rebel against the government send a clear and concise message that they disapprove of what the government is doing. In “Civil Disobedience”, Henry David Thoreau states that “I cannot for an instant recognize that political organization as my government which is the slave’s government”. In this statement, Thoreau asserts his discontent for the government that enforces gross discrimination and inequality. While one person may not be able to get the government to change by simply asserting their discontent through disobedience, groups of people can, which is proven throughout history. Mahatma Gandhi is a very well known example of a nonviolent advocate who led many collective demonstrations of civil disobedience against British rule over India. Eventually, after years of peaceful protesting, India gained independence from Great Britain in 1947. By demonstrating the justification of his cause through his actions, Gandhi was able to free his country. Through non-violent and simple disobedience, protestors exhibit the morality of the social progress which they advocate for.

Though some argue that forceful disobedience negatively impacts society, history justifies it as a reasonable reaction to unsuccessful civil disobedience. The first and foremost of historical examples of this sentiment is the American Revolution. American colonists did their best to protest peacefully and non-violently through demonstrations such as the Boston tea party, but the tyrannical government and King of Britain refused to give the colonists’ platform any consideration. So, the colonists declared a rebellion against Great Britain that cost many lives but created a new nation that was founded on liberty and democracy. Furthermore, the 1968 Chicago riots had many effects that were both positive and negative on communities. The riots were started for a variety of reasons and were relatively unorganized. However, it forced things to change; political parties got rid of party bosses who controlled many elections. This led to much more democratic elections in the whole country. Yet another example of necessary forceful disobedience is the Stonewall riots in which members of the LGBT community pushed back in a series of riots following a police raid on the Stonewall Inn. Though police raids on gay bars, hotels, and other institutions were common, people chose to stand up for themselves after being oppressed for so long. Because of their rebellion against their oppressors, many gay activist organizations were formed that also protested and led to the gay liberation movement along with modern movements for LGBT rights. While mindless violence undeniably delegitimizes a cause, forceful disobedience presents itself as the logical next step after the failure of civil disobedience.

Finally, disobedience causes the institution of social progress through reform in government. John Steinbeck describes cars of families pulling over at the same spring in The Grapes of Wrath. He continues to describe time passing and leaders emerging out of these groups and laws and codes being made (265). While no families are being truly disobedient, the situation is an example of a makeshift government. This makeshift government is made of ordinary people, and so it institutes logical laws meant for ordinary people. If the U.S. government was like the makeshift government and truly considered what was most logical for the majority of ordinary people, disobedience would rarely be necessary. However, the description of the functional makeshift government draws attention to the differences between that of a truly democratic government of the people and the American government that rarely listens to its ordinary people. To continue, the 1913 Suffrage Parade exemplifies a peaceful protest that both demonstrated the virtuous stance that the protesters were asserting and contributed to the eventual legalization of women’s suffrage in 1920. The continuous civil disobedience that accompanied the parade directly led to the passage of the 19th amendment, a fundamental governmental reform that indicated a new progression of American Society. Finally, Steinbeck asserts the need for reform in government through disobedience by describing the abuses of federal forces. When hungry men came into western towns and begged for food during the Great Depression, “sheriffs swore in deputies in droves, and orders were rushed for rifles, for tear gas, for ammunition” (591). The sheriffs are men employed by the government, and they abuse hungry men who are almost hopeless in their pleads for necessities of survival. If a government is capable of such inhumane abuses as these, there is no other logical response than disobedience against that government to enforce change that progresses the treatment and equality of all its citizens. In summary, disobedience institutes social progress by bringing about reform in government.

On the whole, disobedience against the government has forced the government to establish social progress in legislation. Looking at disobedience with a historical perspective justifies the romanticism of rebelling present in much of entertainment today. As disobedience evidently produces social progress, media and entertainment reflect the importance of social progress by supporting the most effective means to accomplish it.

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Change Through Disobedience. (2021, Mar 10). Retrieved from

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