In our class discussions on Tuesday and Thursday began to unpack the nature of civil disobedience. This turned out to be an exercise in making ones perspective flexible in order to really comprehend a text. Before I begin my thoughts on the content of the pieces I’m interested in discussing, I want to acknowledge how valuable the skill of recognizing and combatting ones implicit bias is. When reading a Van Dusen rebuttal to the actions and words of one MLK jr. a knee jerk reflex to shield the latter with your whole being. But the conversation stalls.
To get the wheels turning again we were asked to consider the nature of coercion. I am accustomed to hearing the word “coercion” in the context of a non-consensual sexual encounter. With this in mind I tried to conflate some of the specifics of that iteration of coercion and find fundamentals of the word that might contribute to a more broad, conceptual definition. What we landed on was something akin to “ a subversion of ones autonomy to cause their participation in something they were once opposed to doing”. Taking this idea and applying it to Van Dusen’s argument is what lead me to consider what democracy entailed as far as personal freedoms within a community.
In his section entitled, “Violations of Law Subvert Democracy”, van Dusen writes, “The disobedient act of conscience does not ennoble democracy; it erodes it”(125). By stating this as fact, we are told that civil disobedience is inherently dangerous to our way of life and it will inevitably erode our democracy. I interpreted this as also a comment on the nature of democracy. In this, Van Dusen defines democracy (in its ideal) as something in which (even in the case of perceived injustice)there is a certain set of mores of how to make change that is acceptable.
Living in this same model of democracy, King asserts that “negotiation” is often a catalyst to democratic change. King writes in his Letter from Birmingham Jail “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue”(2).With this we can see how King highlights the necessity of nonviolent action to open up channels for conversation. But in response, Van Dusen raises the interesting idea that perhaps one should not be forced, or rather coerced, into having conversations that they do not wish to have. In a way one must ask “Is it a democratic right to practice willful ignorance?” but what is more pressing for van Dusen’s argument is whether or not one have the obligation to address injustices that may disrupt the status quo. This lawyer would say nonviolent action as a means of facilitating conversation to induce change is a subversion of democracy. To this I ask what would van Dusen propose is a democratic means of bringing about change in the face of obvious inequality and oppression?
Civil Disobedience: Destroyer of Democracy, Lewis H. Van Dusen
Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.