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Reviving Civil Disobedience

Nonviolent but confrontational forms of civil disobedience have a strong track record of success in exposing injustice and countering creeping authoritarianism. But those who embrace this tactic today will have to adapt it to a fractured and polarized public sphere.

PRINCETON – With populism and authoritarianism on the rise around the world, there has been considerable talk of “resistance,” especially in the United States. A rather broad term, resistance could refer to everything from supporting opposition candidates to the life-threatening work of those who went underground to sabotage Nazi occupations during World War II. Such vagueness is helpful, if one wants to appeal to as many citizens as possible; but it can also cloud one’s thinking when weighing how best to achieve concrete goals.

As it happens, there is a more precise alternative to “resistance” that is rarely mentioned nowadays: civil disobedience. In theory, civil disobedience should be an effective weapon against populists. But, in practice, it faces two formidable challenges. First, there is a widespread misunderstanding of what civil disobedience actually entails. And, second, changes in the media landscape have made it harder to convey the message of civil disobedience to a broad and diverse audience.

The American philosopher John Rawls offered the classic definition of civil disobedience in the early 1970s. Simply put, it means overt law-breaking, but in a conscientious, nonviolent manner aimed at persuading fellow citizens that a law ought to be changed because it is unjust. In Rawls’s formulation, those who commit acts of civil disobedience should be prepared to accept the penalties for doing so.

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