The Stonewall Riots. The Suffragettes. The Black Panthers.
History offers us no shortage of cases where operating outside of the law has changed a society for the better. In a recent example of such “civil disobedience” an individual disguised as a maintenance worker took a pickaxe to Donald Trump’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As so often seems to be the case these days, the true significance of this story was to be found, not in the articles written about it, but in the Facebook comments. Trump’s supporters were out in force accusing those hailing the vandal as a hero of being hypocrites.
As painful as it is to admit, Trump’s supporters may have a point. It seems unlikely that, had a supporter of traditional marriage vandalised the star bearing the name of an LGBT celebrity, so many people would have considered their actions praiseworthy. So why is one act of vandalism considered justified civil disobedience and another is not? It is tempting to say that some people are simply on the wrong side of history, but this is a dangerous line of thinking. To presume yourself to be in the right, however confident you may be, is to undermine the foundation of a democratic society. More to the point, this fails to resolve the matter, since both sides will doubtless consider themselves just.
The real difference lies in the motivation behind the breaking of the law. Civil disobedience is justified only when those involved are both reluctant and desperate. To resort to such actions is to be like a wounded animal lashing out against a hungry predator. It is, and must always be, a last resort. Can we call Julian Assange reluctant when he seems to be having so much fun meddling in the US election? Can we call a homophobic Christian baker desperate when the worst fate they face is having to bake a cake? Can we call Trump supporters reluctant or desperate when the overwhelmingly hold privileged positions in society?
If Clinton is elected, then at worst we will have a conservative war hawk in the oval office. If Trump is elected, then at best we will have a mentally unstable demagogue persecuting minorities and destabilising global security.
Civil disobedience is a necessary part of any fully-functioning society, but so are soldiers and prisons. All three are necessary evils and that is something we seem to have forgotten. People these days are all too quick to jump on the bandwagon when a new protest movement emerges. It feels like too many are just looking for an excuse to break the law or champion those who do. Is that really a society we want to live in? Returning to the case of the Walk of Fame vandal, they acted only after the Republican party had every opportunity to elect a respectable candidate and failed to do so. By all means fight the system, but you have to give the system a chance to work first.