Though a collective effort of community is required for a successful revolutionary mission, individual reformers must resist the very tempting mindless following of the masses to work steadily toward the desired changes. Meanwhile, as individuals pursue personal convictions, they must also recognize their moral obligation of educating and informing others who are struggling to find their guiding beliefs that are free from material and political influences.
In “Civil Disobedience,” Thoreau discussed the importance of individual citizens’ actions in influencing policy changes and ending unjust laws. Though he holds a relatively radical opinion that anarchy is the optimal ultimate form of government, his analysis of the dichotomy between real-life actions and every person’s civic and moral responsibility is essential for understanding the existing problems in small reforms and potential solutions. Thoreau made it clear that we cannot rely on the “wordy wit of legislators in Congress for our guidance, uncorrected by the seasonable experience and the effectual complains of the people” (196). He believed that the existing government, despite its more meritocratic system, does not consist of truly wise and noble men in the field of policymaking regarding taxation, economy, etc. What’s worse is that rather than serving the people as they should in a real democratic nation, government officials prioritize partisanship and political power over citizens’ will. In the process, the people gradually lost touch with the governing process for multiple causes: first, the increasing poverty and lack of access to opportunity cause some to receive limited education and say in important social sectors (such as large corporations and the government). Gandhi agreed with the dangerous role that financial hardship plays in oppression. He said, “poverty is the worst form of violence” (Gandhi). By taking away necessary resources to support one’s physical needs and allow intellectual pursuit, the government silence the people. Second, the general public’s indifference. Though people might vote or petition, they almost are never genuinely concerned when their desired outcome is not fulfilled. Thoreau describes this as “willing to leave it to the majority” and having a limited obligation of “never exceeding that of expediency” (182). Here, the public’s engagement with the government is an expedient because it is only the means to achieve certain tasks, such as ensure laws are enforced. However, it can do no more than that to foster independent thinking among citizens to fulfill greater spiritual satisfaction and peace. This is demonstrated in the phenomenon of the tyranny of the majority in democratic nations despite democracy being considered the optimal contemporary political system. When some people’s view opposes the majority’s view, the minority seldomly challenge the result as fiercely as possible because there is no strong conviction or incentive for most people to do so. As Martin Luther King said in his “A letter from Birmingham City Jail,” a response to a group of clergymen criticizing the civil rights movement, “freedom is never voluntarily given up by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed” (par.12). The majority of the people who are not directly influenced by unjust laws feel satisfied with the status quo, lacking empathy and compassion for those who suffer. Under such circumstances, it’s highly tempting for individuals who initially wanted to act differently to succumb to the will of the majority.
The only potent and sustainable resistance to such influence is resolute recognition of one’s self-worth and moral responsibility. Self-worth derives from knowing every human being, including oneself, deserves to be treated fairly and develop intelligence, and free will. It is consolidated through integrity, which is when “[one’s] conduct derives consistently from a core of deeply held ideals or if he makes the decisions that moral life requires with real attention to his possibly conflicting ideals” (Walzer, 196). The core belief is different for anyone as we all exercise free will to shape our understanding of right and wrong. Acting consistently according to the ideals even when experiencing inner conflict drives us to resist external voices. Moral responsibility comes with such realization of self-worth, encompassing individual obligation in the community to ensure the aforementioned conditions are met for all people. The interconnectivity of the two concepts means when one is diminished, the other vanishes too. Thoreau observes that “the State never intentionally confronts a man’s sense, intellectual or moral, but only his body, his senses” (190). When the state only uses violence and fear to lead, they are taking advantage of the shared weaknesses of all human beings. Doing so reduced people to animals enslaved by their bodily senses and pain, losing their sense of self-worth. Under such conditions, they pose no worrisome threats to the regime in power as they lack inspirational and wise thinking (aka. self-worth) that can effectively upend the system and have no awareness nor motivation (aka. moral responsibility) to help those that are suffering from oppression. Ending such a dilemma requires people to develop an informed and robust conscience that is not easily swayed by external influences and everchanging circumstances. As Thoreau calls, “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn” (183). The machine is not only referring to the apathetic government but also the vast majority of people who never assess laws and social norms critically based on their moral standard. When people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King willingly sacrificed their lives to slow down and eventually stop the machine, adamantly advocating for truths and justice, an awakening of self-worth and moral responsibility was ignited.
However, the civil disobedience that Thoreau contended lacks an important feature: the collective effort of the community. His analysis of moral obligation was limited to the individual. To him, people have no duty to change or eradicate injustice as long as they are not complying with the sinister policies or laws (183). Yet, this mindset leads to limited effectiveness when correcting unjust statutes. As Martin Luther King famously stated in “Letter From Birmingham City Jail”, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” (par. 4). When only a few people stick to their convictions, no changes can be made as power relies on the number of devotees (Arendt, 44). Though Thoreau was right that we do not need to and never should wait for becoming the “majority” to act, spreading the cause to more people make substantial changes more plausible. Not only does collective effort have greater influence, but it also provides meaning for individual reformers’ goals. As McCabe pointed out, “It is only within communities that people have functions” (McCabe, 197). Humans are created as social animals that find the purpose of life through building valuable connections with others, giving and receiving love. When people only care about their own moral standing, they alienate themselves from the suffering of others. This kind of civil disobedience is for self-comfort and salvation rather than altruistic compassion for all. True revolutionary efforts that aim to alter the society demands the reformists to be part of the struggle rather than an outside/independent institution.
The importance of considering oneself as part of the community has been demonstrated repeatedly in historical and recent events. They have shown us that agreement on pursuing personal values must never come at the expense of social unity to prevent the community from being divided as social changes occur. In the movie Gandhi, the conflict between Muslims and Hindus demonstrates that when groups have different opinions and goals that blind them from their shared moral responsibility, they were driven astray. To calm and provide guidance to the agitated community, Gandhi said, “God has no religion.” In a 4-word short sentence, Gandhi incisively pointed out the problem that religion is wrongfully interpreted to justify self-interest and xenophobia when God truly preaches agape, which is unconditional love for all. Religion is only one example of the many centrifugal forces in society. Race, gender, nationality, and sexuality remain sources of conflict not just between the oppressors and the oppressed but also among marginalized groups. A current example of a misguided attempt to uphold personal conscience is the Jan. 6 riot at the capitol. The rioters claimed that they have the right cause of interfering with the certification of the presidential election result because the voting was rigged. Yet, this claim was not based on validated evidence nor was the protest completely civil and peaceful. Instead of safeguarding democracy as they alleged, their actions disrupted the imperative smooth transition of power. They were neither guided by logical reasoning nor an accurate assessment of the candidates. And the fact that this uninformed opinion, which was supposed to be ridiculed and discouraged, gained so many supporters and momentum is a scary sign of the lack of education and moral guidance among today’s generations. Though it might seem to be an extreme connection to make, those similar sentiments, when amplified and fueled, lead to atrocities such as segregation and ethnic cleansing happening around the world even today. Thus, as individuals stay true to our beliefs, we must recognize that uniting together to ensure a dignified and safe way of living for everyone in the community must be equally considered as important.
As an inseparable part of society, all individuals should find a balance between staying true to their moral standards and helping others fight against unjust treatments. When not having the support of the majority, instead of waiting for the “right” time to come or only acting independently, people should actively seek transformation in the awareness and mindsets of our neighbors regardless of their stances. Only through constant collective effort driven by a genuine commitment to the cause of ending all injustices that the vices of society can be banished one after another.
- Arendt, Hannah. “On Power.” On Violence. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich. 1970. Print.
- Gandhi. Dir. Richard Attenborough. Perf. Ben Kingsley, Saeed Jaffrey, Alyque Padamsee, Roshan Seth, Rohini Hattangadi. Columbia Pictures, 1982. DVD.
- King, Martin Luther. “Letter from Birmingham City Jail.” A World of Ideas. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. Print.
- McBrien, Richard P. “Conscience.” Catholicism. Vol II. Minneapolis, MN: Winston, 1980. Print.
- McCabe, Herbert. “Priesthood and Revolution.” Commonweal. 20 Sept. 1968: 621-625. Print.
- Thoreau, Henry David. “Civil Disobedience.” A World of Ideas. Ed. Lee A. Jacobus. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. Print.
- Walzer, Michael. “Political Solidarity and Personal Honor.” Obligations: Essays on Disobedience, War, and Citizenship. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1970. Print.