Why “Civil Disobedience” Is a Game Clever People Never Play!
Posted by intellisg on July 26, 2007
I am sure we’ve all considered it. One time or another, the whole idea of peaceful “civil disobedience”(CD). As an undergraduate, I remember boycotting a lecturer for a whole semester. I didn’t like the way he picked on me (real or imagined). I even made doubly sure, I studied triple hard just in case, he tried to do me in on a technicality. At the end of it, I earned a distinction and I felt vindicated. I had proven my point in empirical even scientific terms – not only did I pass. I scored a distinction! While it lasted, I was the darling of campus as a veritable Martin Luther, my distinction even acquiring the patina of Magna Carta. I had proven without a shadow of doubt, by removing myself peacefully from the “process” the “system,” he (the offending lecturer) was truly irrelevant to my destiny!
But let’s be honest. How effective is the idea of peaceful Gandhi styled CD these days? Does chucking in blogging really make a difference to the system? Is deploying the dreaded black arts of “bochapness” and “dowanlah” styled CD capable of soliciting change in people, institutions and governments these days?
These days you don’t have to trawl very hard in the net to come up with the endless ways people make sense of this venerated peaceful method of protesting and expressing dissatisfaction with the “system.” The “system” could be anything and anyone ranging from a firm, church, institution, service provider, regime or even the local fish monger who tried to pull a fast one on you last week. At the heart of CD is the whole idea, “I will show you. Just wait and see! I will show you!” According to Metternich, the Austrian diplomat, the whole idea of CD operates on one “overriding assumption” by removing oneself from the “system,” it serves not only as a form of protest, but to render “impotent” and “irrelevant” the system, thus “discrediting” it.
But how effective is CD as a tool of effecting change these days? Even Henry Thoreau, the father of CD admitted, “just as the long bow gave way to the crossbow, civil disobedience may not necessarily be an enduring means of soliciting change.” Juxtapose this against the internet age and it throws out long disturbing shadows about its efficacy. Yes, I know TIME magazine recently suggested the idea, the “you” has stepped out from the faceless “we” and blogging has empowered all of us with cheap printing presses in the same way Henry Ford once popularized the model T Ford. But lets get real, getting the message across needs to be seen in the right scale and perspective. For example you may blog, but so what? There are millions of blogs! Every 3.9 sec someone, somewhere in this planet is either opening or shutting down a blog! The super duper information highway is starting to look like the Robinson sale of the century. The probability of being read, let alone heard these days is roughly the same as having the chance of gaining notoriety by being a common sense expert. So what if you opt out or decide to say “nay?”
There you go, the facts stacked alongside sobering facts, now you know, you and I are truly insignificant.
What many people seem to elide whenever they argue the point: “well I am sick and tired of the system so I am going to exercise my prerogative to opt out of the system! Blah blah blah is how closely CD efficacy is linked directly and indirectly to the broader ecology of politics, economics, society and even technological trends.
This means: what used to be effective CD is just plain dumb these days. For example in the 1920’s it made perfect sense for Gandhi’s adherents who once resisted the British Empire peacefully by lying down on colonial railway tracks only because steam locomotive ran at 35 mph around bends – enough leeway for someone to shout out, pull the brake lever and still manage to brew a cup of tea and make a few chapattis. These days with maglev trains running in excess of at 450 kph, any attempt to demonstrate CD in the same way would just end up mass producing ginger bread man cookies. Not a bad option for even railway companies when you consider how bad their stocks are languishing despite the stock market boom.
My point is this: Every generation and age needs to define the best means of CD of removing oneself peaceful from the system to solicit change effectively. In ancient Egypt, slaves conscripted to build the great pyramids of Luxor faked vertigo en masse to get their over zealous overseers in hot soup by deliberately mishandling their loads to off load them in the Nile. During the 1960’s flower power became the defining rallying cry of CD galvanized mass resistance against the Vietnam war.
It begs the question: what’s the best means of peaceful CD in the internet age?
Before diving into the issue, let’s consider the brass tacks – that’s to say the deeper why’s or workings. I am not referring here to the conceptual and definitional. I know that part is sorted out. What I want to know is what’s the impact of CD these days! It’s all too easy to leap frog the first order precedent just because CD is assumed to have agency to the conviction that it must have agency!
The adage: past performance is not an indicator of future performance appears to be gaining currency when we consider CD as an effective means of bring about change. As most of us grow ever more distracted and mesmerized by mass culture – as technology continues to proliferate deeper into the collective consciousness this has an impact on the effectiveness of CD. It simply means our collective decibel tolerance has risen and even something as basic as our capacity to be “shocked” or “provoked” increases proportionally, it gets ratcheted up imperceptibly (this could be why ladies not longer suffer from fainting spells). As much as we like to believe – are we really still in touch with out sense, sensibilities and sensitivities ?– haven’t we really been anaesthetized, to the point of numbness and indifference? Yes, I do not doubt occasionally society does wake up from the dead and rally to the greater cause like the Tsunami that tore through Aceh and we do and pour out with great fanfare our hearts by even by donating a few pieces of shrapnel from our pockets to the greater good.
However for the most part hasn’t technology simply rendered CD ineffective? Because these days, it just takes more to shock us? Content isn’t king! I cannot. Not if one considers information is even competing with information as it tries to grab a slice of our diminishing aperture of consciousness. I can express this in math gobble-d-guck, but for the sake of simplicity, it just means CD these days is a victim of the “roach-spray- effect” (the more you spray us, the more we develop immunity and the larger your doses need to be!).
In fact, if we really look around the information “noise” is so loud and varied these days. Even those who have a legitimate platform to air the POV may not necessarily be heard either – if they’re really cutting through, reporters wouldn’t be gripping about lost of readership and diminishing advertising returns – politicians wouldn’t need to keep insisting at every opportunity people aren’t apathetic even to the extent of scrapping the bottom of the barrel by comparing collective political interest with party inspired grass root activities (you really need to consider is that really an apple to apple comparison?) – and of course finally, how could I possibly forget, only because they was a time, Janet Jackson tits wouldn’t be behaving like the transformers, they would behave like prim and proper Victorian tits.
The problem is simply this. The message isn’t getting through and that’s symptomatic of a larger problem –suggesting even it may be time to even consider jettisoning the whole idea of CD as a means of inspiring positive change. Experts in the field of conflict management are already beginning to register diminishing returns as they register growing disenchantment what’s called the “Iraqi paradox” in diplomatic circles – the closer you are to your goal, the lesser the returns – what we don’t really realize is CD isn’t as much a “civil” tool as it is a diplomatic crowbar that politicians have been using to leverage an advantage since statecraft was first elevated into a science – holding back on sand, prolonging negotiations, quibbling on the details, economic sanctions and trade embargos are all derivatives of higher forms of civil disobedience though even politicians and even diplomats may contend to insist otherwise. Only in these case, the power and politics of CD is conducted by highly skilled diplomats, adept in the art of court intrigues reminiscent of the French courtiers de la Versailles, but have no doubt, it’s CD only with a heady dose of eau de parfum and a gold leaf trimmings – not only does CD produce no noticeable returns. Nor does it portend or promote any meaningful sustainable evolution that even changes the attitude of governments and institutions. On the contrary, the Iraqi experience and North Korean negotiations suggest CD in the diplomatic context merely reinforces and calcifies those we wish to teach a lesson – they hit back!
The lesson it brings to the discussion of CD in our context is the growing need to consider a new approach which reflects the reality of the internet age. One that needs to engage instead of sharpening the sense of isolation and estrangement.One that is able to bridge, clarify and harmonize instead of bracketing and sidelining controversial issues such as race and religion, which ignoring only breeds disenchantment – frequently leading to radicalism and inspiring senseless violence in the form of terrorism.
And just in case you think for one moment this is all fuzzy wuzzy, “I open my heart and you do the same and we are all generations of precious moments stuff.” Think again, the stakes are high. High enough for academics, seasoned diplomats and even the UN security council to consider pursuing this cause as a matter of strategic priority. The cavalier approach of the Bush administration and the deployment of CD in the harshest form ranging from denying opportunities to work, economic independence etc in Iraq has only served to exacerbate, alienated and sharpened the barb wires of the quagmire. If nothing it serves to illustrate in real terms CD be it as a tool used by governments or by individuals against oligarchies is diminishing as a credible force of reason.
Central to the idea is promotion of a new tool to sustain the dialogue between people and government - “active constructive engagement.” It appears to have all the sheen of new to even suggest it’s an altogether new paradigm but it isn’t. When one considers the diminishing role of CD as being an effective facilitator of change – it brings into sharp focus much of its limits lies in not only its capacity to cut through the noise. In every case it engages only the attention and the interests of only a small, stratum of the populace. That of course leads us to consider how enlightened is this stratum? For example do bloggers see the world clearer than those who don’t blog or even bother to read blogs? Or perhaps our views about the political order and the roles and goals which we hope to play are very much products of our inwardness – hardly a credible basis to legitimize the right to change more of way of solidifying and becoming more embattled in the “we against them” mentality. And that simply ignores the broader scope of the discussion for real change.
“Active constructive engagement,” – think about it: whether they want to even listen to you? – who picks up the bill? – where do you met? – do you offer the sugar with the creamer or the other way round? Those are the small stuff, but it’s the tao of falling in love and starting your own business – never tried and lost, never to even have thrown the cusp to the wind is to lose in the language of poetry. All I know is when people really talk, something shifts, it gives, that’s when real things happen – don’t be surprise even if you happen to see the world slightly differently from the way you once saw it and that’s why smart people never engage in civil disobedience, be it chucking in blogging, giving up with a loved one, ignoring someone or resorting to just keeping stoically silent, its just dumb because we all know even a puppy can piss on the tallest building in the world and you do you really know what that really means in the greater order of things?
A big fat nothing, perhaps it’s time to for constructive engagement?
(This has been brought to you by Aurora your friendly brotherhood controller – Darkness, Cerebus, Vollariane: Why “Civil Disobedience” Is a Game Clever People Never Play! / Socio –Political – 2007 / Extended Piece (EP 400393 – The Brotherhood Press 2007)
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