Naomi Klein is at it again. While I think that she does make some decent points at times, her points are too often those which sound great but do not withstand scrutiny once one examines the foundation for her arguments.
Her latest comment that left me puzzled was provided in an article in Slate.
As stated, the background of this was that the French government instituted a ban on large outdoor gatherings. The French government ostensibly stated that this was a security precaution subsequent to the terrorist attacks of three weeks hence.
The ancillary cost of this banning was that large demonstrations and protests for COP21, occurring for the next two weeks in Paris, would be illegal. Some chose to protest, anyway. Among these protesters, some became more violent, which led to arrests and riot gear.
Said Ms. Klein:
“What I saw [Sunday] was Parisians ready to take back their city from fear. In multiple ways, people defied attempts to sweep away dissent and insisted on their right to protest, assemble and disagree passionately with their governments. Even if one does not agree with every action that took place, this general atmosphere of defiance is something to celebrate. After all, government response to the climate crisis is wholly inadequate and puts us all in great danger. Obedience in the face of this failure would be tantamount to acquiescence.”
Okay. Naomi Klein is looking at this as an act of civil disobedience. That’s fine. But the the issue becomes: what is being disobeyed?
Effective Civil Disobedience Requires Rules
One can look at acts of past civil disobedience and see that effective action requires some common actions and words. To me, the first rule should be that:
(1) Civil Disobedience must be Non-Violent
This goes without saying. Violent disobedience is not civil.
(2) There Must be a Clear Nexus between the Rule Being Disobeyed and the Act of Disobedience
Let us say that I have an issue with the National Park Service’s ban on BASE Jumping in National Parks. And to show my displeasure, I tear up a road leading into and out of Yosemite National Park. I then use my megaphone to tell the crowd about how terrible the NPS BASE ban is.
This does not present any clear nexus. Instead, a simpler act of civil disobedience would be to announce to rangers my intention to jump off of El Capitan, invite them to the event, and then jump. It’s simple: rule is unfair or unjust, I just broke that rule and no other rule.
Compare Naomi Klein’s suggestion: she suggests that disobedience is required, but disobedience is directed to the ABSENCE of a rule to disobey. General acts of disobedience without a specific rule to disobey are not only acts of petty crime but lack any coherence.
In this case, there is a public gathering in open defiance of a rule against public gatherings. The rule being disobeyed was the rule against large-scale public protests. This rule was disobeyed by a large-scale public protest. The nexus in this case is established. The nexus is clear.
Make the defiance easy to absorb.
(3) Civil Disobedience Requires Respect for Rule of Law
When Socrates was facing death for corruption of the youth, Socrates accepted his punishment. Indeed, the guards were willing to let Socrates escape but Socrates refused. He went willingly and drank the hemlock. He wasn’t arguing against rule of law. He was protesting the laws themselves.
Martin Luther King, Jr. went willingly to jail. He stayed there, penning letters about how his plight was necessary in order to change the unjust laws. In doing so, public sentiment and shared community ethos turned the tide into a repeal of the Jim Crow laws. Part and parcel to this is that the person who is breaking an unjust law must always plead guilty. Otherwise, the whole point is lost. The good is taken with the bad.
In Ms. Klein’s example, she fails. This is probably her largest failure, for she admires and appreciates a “general atmosphere of defiance.” A general atmosphere of defiance is anarchy.
Civil disobedience REQUIRES a general atmosphere of civil respect for authority, with specific instances of the breaking of an unjust law. That means defiance of a rule prohibiting large numbers of people from assembling by an assembly of a large number of people to otherwise respect the rule of law.
(4) The Laws will be Changed only when the Cause is Demonstrated to be Just
This is what really separates civil defiance from anarchy. I point to the Occupy Wall Street movement as an example of how to do things wrong. Occupy Wall Street was not really being disobedient towards any rule. Indeed, they were a group of people who were viewed by those not a part of it as a group of people who just were pains.
What did they want? Was there a clear message? What is their cause? How can they show it to be just?
Bill Clinton himself stated the problems with Occupy Wall Street: “They need to be for something specific and not just against something because if you’re just against something, somebody else will fill the vacuum you create… [To] make the change, eventually what it is you’re advocating has to be clear enough and focused enough that either there’s a new political movement which embraces it or people in one of the two parties embraces it.”
This is where Occupy Wall Street went wrong. They weren’t for anything. They were only AGAINST things. Meanwhile, there was violence and crime within and without the group.
In Ms. Klein’s case, 10,000 people protesting a climate conference does not create civil disobedience. I will readily admit that I find it wholly appropriate to demonstrate against a deal so long as it is AFTER the deal is made.
Are they protesting the lack of progress? No. It just started. The justness of a cause is not shown by protesting just to protest. Rather, civil disobedience must come with a just cause that is clearly communicated.
(5) Don’t Piss Off the Uninvolved
I’ve seen it many times. Some group decides to protest some action or rule and does so loudly and en masse. How many times do they hold up traffic? Or create so much noise that people just going about their days are interrupted and respond with disdain?
Again, protesting for the sake of being heard not only presents a lack of a rule being defied, but also presents an act of dominion over the public at large. If the first exposure a member of the public has to an issue is being interrupted or otherwise feeling harassed, the moral high ground was lost before it was obtained.
The purpose of disobedience is not to defeat an enemy. Civil disobedience does not seek to humiliate. Civil disobedience, in the words of Gandhi, seeks to “win their friendship and understanding.” Hence, a BASE jumper preventing people from enjoying Yosemite would not win a moral victory.
In this, Ms. Klein has framed the issue for failure. A “general atmosphere of defiance” is anarchy. Such a “general atmosphere of defiance” does not hold respect for rule of law. Nor does it work to create the friendship and understanding of the opponent or the public.
Naomi Klein, I’m fairly sure, means well. However, she is doing what people usually do: get caught up in the moment.
Civil disobedience is not accomplished on a whim. Civil disobedience requires planning and a steadfast ability to put emotions aside. Emotion has no place in effective civil disobedience. The emotion must be limited to outrage and sympathy of the public which the act itself evoked.
Civil disobedience is more than demonstrating. It is more than protest. And it is more than anarchy.
It is respect for the rule of law and willful breaking of the unjust one. The demonstrators in Paris and elsewhere would be wise to understand the difference between peaceful assembly and civil disobedience.
No doubt, those demonstrating in Paris committed an act of civil disobedience. I applaud them for that. But in no way can it be rationally claimed that the disobedience is against climate change.
Because there first must be an agreement to protest.