The Dharma of Civil Disobedience

Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker, and others have described his act of revealing facts about sweeping U.S. Government surveillance programs as “civil disobedience.” Whether you consider Snowden a hero or a traitor, one thing you cannot say about him is that he is a civil disobedient, at least not the traditional definition of that term.

Merriam-Webster defines civil disobedience as the “refusal to obey government demands or commands and nonresistance to consequent arrest and punishment.” While whistle-blowing doesn’t strictly fit the definition, it is the last part that I think is significant: “nonresistance to consequent arrest and punishment.” That means you don’t go on the lam.

Not that I blame Snowden. I wouldn’t want to be arrested and tried as a traitor either. And yet, the willingness to be arrested, is exactly what makes civil disobedience so powerful.

I’m afraid that Snowden has diluted his own act of protest. As David Corn said on MSNBC’s Hardball Monday,

He said I want to start a debate. I wanted to get people thinking about this in the public and on Capitol Hill, but yet because of all the drama in the last few days of his flight and the human interest story he’s created himself now . . . He has now made the story more about him than about these great issues . . .”

The greatest proponent of civil disobedience in modern times was Mahatma Gandhi, whose Satyagraha or “truth force” movement, employed during the Indian struggle for independence, helped inspire the freedom movements of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the U.S. and Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

Vinit Haksar, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and an Honorary Fellow, School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences, University of Edinburgh, in his paper “The Right to Civil Disobedience,”* notes that “Gandhi . . . thought that civil disobedients succeed by courting punishment, not by avoiding it.” He also states that “The ordinary criminal tries to run away from punishment, while the civil disobedient breaks the law in an open and civil way. The latter co-operates with the authorities both at the stage of committing the crime and in jail.” Cooperating with authorities before or during the commission of act of civil disobedience may not always be the case, but in general the civil disobedient does cooperate with the punishment. After all, it is not only an act of protect, but also one of sacrifice.

Haksar reminds us,

Total toleration of civil disobedience in general would lead to its death as it would mean that civil disobedients would not be able to demonstrate their sincerity through their willingness to undergo punishment.”

It is perhaps a small point, a bit of nit-picking, but as the discussion of  Snowden’s leak, his flight, and his motives continue in the weeks to come, it seems like an important point to keep in mind.

An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law”

– Martin Luther King Jr.

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* Osgoode Hall Law, 2003