Civil disobedience: pros & cons

I studied and practiced civil disobedience, in the early 1990s, when working for the Norwegian branch of War Resisters’ International and being on the editorial board of the magazine Ikkevold (Nonviolence). Got arrested twice, detained a few times, and had to show up in court in a third case, because of purely nonviolent resistance methods recommended by Gandhi and Gene Sharp. I still believe that civil disobedience is morally the best way to resist oppression. It’s the only method I’m comfortable with.

When I’m in hyper-focused science mode, I can be neutral to the point of ice-cold amorality, but when exiting this mode I return to being an empath, feeling anxiety when reflecting upon the evilness of all violent methods, and dreading that a few of my own writings, created when being in a value-neutral science mode, may cause some half-educated rebel to avoid responsibility for his own immoral violent activism by saying in court that he was inspired by this website. But he can’t get away with it that easily, because if he had read more than just a few of my posts he would have quickly seen very clearly that I don’t recommend any escalation beyond nonviolent sabotage. Even posts that focus only on terrorism mention that this method is deeply immoral (and that nonviolence is better).

By sabotage I mean tactics similar to methods used by Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front. Even rightwing people can use this tactic. But it’s a risky method. If being very unlucky, a highly skilled activist can end up physically harming people. That’s why I’m very far from comfortable when claiming that nonviolent sabotage is the best compromise between ethics and utilitarian effectiveness.

This post however is about civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance. If enough civilians support it, then it’s a form of defense that can stop even tyrants, if the latter are not as brutal as Hitler and Stalin. If a conflict is extremely serious, in a large overpopulated society, the main weakness of nonviolent resistance is that it often presupposes that millions of people support it.

Here are four scenarios where nonviolent resistance can be effective:

1) if a foreign enemy tries to occupy a state, and this enemy is not totalitarian like Hitler or Stalin, the attack can unite and mobilize a whole nation to rise up and stop the occupiers by using (mainly) nonviolent methods. The same applies if a domestic tyrant becomes so unpopular that millions rise up against him.

2) an insecure and weak tyrant who lacks experience when it comes to stopping nonviolent resistance can in some cases be toppled if only hundred thousand people or less decide to oppose him nonviolently.

3) if a corporation sees that it will not significantly harm its own core interests to give in to the demands of protesters during a consumer boycott, it may comply even if the boycott is relatively small, especially if a minority is very vocal and has media or prominent politicians on its side.

4) it can sometimes happen that more or less “random” events are aligned in such a way that a social justice campaign grows and spreads like a meme. But one can’t rely on such alignments.

Nonviolent civil disobedience is most likely not effective if 1) a threat is too complex for average people to fully understand it, 2) the threat doesn’t trigger a strong emotional reaction in the form of moral outrage, and 3) average citizens become gradually habituated to living with the threat, like a frog not jumping out of the water if slowly cooked.

Big Tech’s drone and IoT surveillance is a phenomenon that people have gradually learned to tolerate. Average citizens are seldom outraged by it, because they think mass surveillance is necessary to stop terrorists. And 4IR surveillance – the monitoring tech of the fourth industrial revolution – is so complex that many either underestimate it or they are so overwhelmed and shocked by it that living in denial, burying your head in the sand, just feels better.

Civil disobedience will therefore most likely not stop Big Tech surveillance. If you disagree, then you have the burden of proof. Go out and rationally convince millions of people that it’s best to basically give up most 4IR tech and return to life as it was prior to the rise of Big Tech in the late 1990s. Good luck with that. People will just say: “What, give up my smartphone? No way.” And that response summarizes the depth of the problem. However, maybe it’s not necessary to go back to mainly using 3IR tech, as we did in the early 1990s. I will explore an alternative, a compromise, in a post about nonviolent sabotage.

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