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Justifying civil disobedience


Justifying civil disobedienceSuddenly we're hearing talk of civil disobedience. Until recently, the term has been associated almost exclusively with protest movements of the mid to late 20th century. It is easy to recall television coverage of protesters tied to trees, obstructing lawful logging operations in the forests of south-eastern Australia. But in recent days, ABC Radio National has reported on plans for acts of civil disobedience designed to do the exact opposite — destroy trees.

Rural landowners are said to be planning a day of civil disobedience on 1 July to clear native vegetation from their land, in defiance of laws enacted to counter ongoing damage to the global ecosystem. This follows revelations that a farmer flouted the law by bulldozing a large tract of land in the environmentally sensitive Gwydir wetlands in northern NSW.

I have no hesitation in agreeing with Environment Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who pledged that those who are found to have broken the law will be dealt with through the courts.

"If people are breaking the law, just because they think there's some point of principle involved, there's no protection", he told ABC Radio.

However I must appear slightly hypocritical when Eureka Street has consistently supported symbolic acts of civil disobedience in other circumstances. Earlier this year, we interviewed Fr John Dear SJ, who carries on the Berrigan brothers' tradition of non-violent protest against war. Dear, who was visiting Australia from the US, has been arrested more than 75 times.

We also admire the four Christian activists in court this month after being arrested for trespassing at the Pine Gap intelligence base near Alice Springs. The group, which includes Iraq "human shield" Donna Mulhearn, conducted what they describe as a "Citizen's Inspection" of Pine Gap military base last year. Mulhearn asserts that the group is challenging the Government's attempts to silence public criticism of US military bases in Australia. On Tuesday, Justice Sally Thomas sided with the defendants when she denied a prosecution attempt to curtail their "political" activities by putting them under house arrest.

Justifying civil disobedienceThe answer to our quandary about apparently supporting the civil disobedience only when we disagree with the laws, has to lie in an assessment of whether the action is fundamentally destructive. We would contend that removing trees and other vegetation from the land is certainly destroying ecosystems and, in the long-term, the sustainability of human life on the planet.

On the other hand, the actions of the Pine Gap Four are symbolic. Trespassing does violate the law, but what they did was essentially an act of free speech. It is true that such protests often involve surface damage to military installations, through graffiti and cutting fences. But the real damage is to the resolve of policymakers to wage war.



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Existing comments

Another reason why the farmers actions are morally questionable goes to intent and motivation. Theirs relates more to money and self interest and individuals rights over the common good whereas the PG 4 and John Dear seek the well being of all through raising awareness.

Angela Ballard | 31 May 2007  

Thanks to Michael Mullins, for raising a very important issue. When is 'civil disobedience' appropriate, and when is it not? Is it okay to disobey laws concerning war, but not okay to disobey laws that concern things like traffic control? What are the criteria that establish the rightness or wrongfulness of civil disobedience?

Is one of them, as suggested by Michael, to do with destruction? He seems to be saying that it's not okay to destroy trees, therefore you can disobey laws that uphold their destruction, but (by implication) not laws that oppose it. It’s not okay to destroy things.

I think he proposes a good example in singling out 'destruction'. There can be few religious or cultural systems in which 'destruction' is seen as a positive value per se. But I would venture that some might see the 'destruction' of a governmental system through civil disobedience as okay. Zimbabweans might.

Similarly, some might see civil disobedience as a legitimate tool for opposing regimes they consider to be oppressive, and there are many who would apply such an epithet to the current Australian government.

So, what are the rights and the wrongs of such matters? Are there any absolutes?

Well, yes, there is at least one. Any law or rule that is unjust is ipso facto not binding, and is to be opposed, even disobeyed. That’s an absolute.

The problem lies in deciding what is and what is not a just and therefore binding law. Who is to make that decision? And out of what socio-cultural / religious schema, from what set of values, is the decision to be made?

It seems to me that one general guide is qui bono: who benefits? The individual? The rulers? The community? An action that benefits the wider community could be seen to have a higher value than one that benefits the rulers or an individual.

Another general guide is the intrinsic morality of the issue itself. For example, is it considered to be good to kill a human being? What moral code is being invoked to answer that? Does the answer admit of any exceptions?

Neither of these ‘general guides’ will produce a fail-safe solution. The 'guides' themselves, along with the resounding 'absolute' principle given above, are themselves generated by a specific set of values and assumptions.

Nevertheless, they provide a useful launching pad for discussion. And they illustrate the fact that, regarding ‘civil disobedience’, it's difficult to decide what is and what isn't okay.

Gabe Lomas | 01 June 2007  

Who made the land they own?

One of our great handicaps in trying to face most of the increasing problems which threaten us, is the notion that those who have bought the land have rights to do what they like with it.
Buyers of land titles may deserve the fruits of improving it for public benefit, but the reliance of our present economy on land values continually rising is socially unjust and has disastrous consequences.
It might be wise for all Crown land sales in future to be 99-year-leases, to underscore that the nation ‘owns’ the land, not private buyers of titles to use it .
None of us have made the land, in most cases. Holland excepted?
Can climate change make us think more clearly?

valerie yule | 03 June 2007  

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