Rude Awakening

A Duty to Resist: When Disobedience Should Be Uncivil BY Candice Delmas. Oxford University Press. Hardcover, 312 pages. $29.

The cover of A Duty to Resist: When Disobedience Should Be Uncivil

When I was in seventh and eighth grades, my class’s newfound maturity was channeled into learning about the most difficult moments of the twentieth century in a unit called Facing History. A central focus of the course was on the culpability of ordinary citizens in the worst crimes of human history. During the Holocaust, we learned, ordinary Germans, whether by ignorance or complacency, paved the way to genocide by not speaking up. The resistance to authoritarianism requires constant vigilance by citizens alert to even the tiniest erosions of society’s morals.

The presidency of Donald Trump has put this vigilance to the test with an escalation of xenophobia in both policy and attitude. In response, Americans have staged marches and protests, officials have resigned, dissenters within the administration have leaked vital and embarrassing information, and that guy punched Richard Spencer. All these acts announce the same simple message: We won’t stand for it. At the same time, what counts as an effective or acceptable form of resistance has been hotly debated. Is deplatforming alt-right speakers at colleges an effective method, and does it matter if it stifles their right to speak? Must protests remain civil and under control, and would crossing into violence ever be justified? Even though we have the will to resist Trump, the tangle of moral and political considerations can make us balk at the point of action.

Planned Parenthood rally, Washington, DC, July 26, 2017.
Planned Parenthood rally, Washington, DC, July 26, 2017.

In her new book A Duty to Resist: When Disobedience Should Be Uncivil, Candice Delmas tries to detangle our obligations with a thorough taxonomy of principled disobedience. When, she asks, do we have a responsibility to break the law for the sake of justice? So far the philosophical world has largely focused on a duty to break the law under very specific circumstances. For John Rawls, whose definition of civil disobedience Delmas takes as a starting point, the paradigm is the public, nonviolent form made famous by Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement: “a conscientious, public, nonviolent breach of law, undertaken in a near-just state, by agents who demonstrate their sincere endorsement of the system’s legitimacy by accepting punishment, and who seek to persuade the majority to change a law or policy by appealing to widely accepted principles of political morality.” But “few disobedient actions, today and historically, meet these requirements,” she writes.

The goal of Delmas’s book is to expand that “rather narrow understanding” to include less civil but equally necessary acts. Edward Snowden’s leak of a trove of national-security documents, for instance, wouldn’t have made the cut for Rawls because Snowden was trying to evade US law. Neither would going on a hunger strike nor housing undocumented immigrants—the first because it’s coercive, the second because it’s secretive. Delmas, in testament to these moral acts, wishes to give them a place in our canon. The book is highly structured and descriptive, with a section in each chapter addressing potential objections head-on. But rather than abstracting types of protest, Delmas stays close to examples from the past century. Saul Alinsky for our time this book is not, but, at best, it will show anyone who’s not already convinced by the moral horror show of our moment that resistance to injustice, including incivility when necessary, is an obligation we all share.

Protests during the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, Washington, DC, January 20, 2017.
Protests during the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump, Washington, DC, January 20, 2017.

Near the beginning, Delmas makes an important argument for the existence of incivility alongside civility, as a foil against which the more famous acts of civil disobedience throughout history have shone in contrast. To the general public, King’s actions would not have been as welcome had it not been for the militant movements he consciously rejected. “The official narrative,” Delmas writes,

[ignored] the contributions of ideologies, groups, and campaigns such as Black nationalism, the Black Panther Party, the Nation of Islam, pan-Africanism, Black workers’ movements, prisoners’ rights movements, Black feminism, third-worldism, and assorted Marxist liberation movements. Adherents of some of these less-recognized groups resorted to violence and called for an overthrow of the racist, imperialist system. But official history brushes these activists aside. It may be that some of them threatened the civil rights movement’s success, but without these radical movements as foil, King’s movement would not have looked so moderate, and therefore may not have gained support from White liberals.

This is what Delmas dubs the “radical flank effect.” In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” she points out, King himself “stressed that ‘the streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood,’ but for his movement.”

The book is well-timed; Americans, under Trump, are now prepared for the idea that resisting injustice is a duty, but uncertain about what modes of resistance are appropriate for the current era. Many of the old ways of demonstrating don’t seem to be hitting the mark. The Women’s March gathered an estimated five million people, but failed to change anything. One of the implications of Delmas’s argument is that this may have to do with how profoundly our conception of injustice has changed in the recent past. During Jim Crow, she points out, injustice was primarily committed by individual government officials or police officers; if we could remove the people with the wrong opinions, we thought, we could fix the system. Now we view everything from racism to inequality as structural. None of our moral case studies help; we are never put into rooms with Nazis to see how we will react. It is easy to act when confronted with a discrete, acute moment in which injustice rears its ugly head: When a Muslim person is verbally abused on the subway, it is easy to know to defend that person—and not hard to conceive of how to do so. But our expectation that overt evil will appear before us, individual moral actors, ready to be struck down, doesn’t quite fit. Our constant vigilance, instead, hunts out lesser beasts: tweets. An image comes to mind of Don Quixote, obsessed with chivalry, tilting at the windmills, thinking they are giants.

New forms of injustice require new forms of resistance. Delmas is committed to broadening our definition of principled disobedience, spreading the good news that we are now allowed to break free of the chains of civility. But I am not sure who her converts will be. Based on its points of reference, which include Black Lives Matter and the movement for trans rights, the book seems to be geared toward those committed to social justice. But Delmas’s tone and position are also defensive, assuming a reluctance in the reader to welcoming uncivil acts into the canon of protest. It’s possible this is a result of the fact that her book accidentally strode a cleft in history; it assumes a public baseline that has changed radically in the past two years, as incivility has become the norm everywhere. She has appended a postscript about resistance under Trump—encouraging officials inside the administration to dissent, and us normal citizens and media workers to learn as much as we can and “denounce lies.” Her recommendations are made absurd by the surreality of this era. “Throwing flour and eggs . . . is preferable to throwing punches” when confronted with a right-wing extremist, she writes—less violent, but “it can work as well to impose social risks on neo-Nazis and dissuade them from publicly defending their views.” It’s hard to imagine an activist stopping to make this calculation. In the moment, decisions about actions aren’t so philosophical; they’re dictated by necessity, emotion driven in reaction to injustice, rejection of decorum.

Instead of viewing principled disobedience as primarily a matter of individual conscience, Delmas suggests that we have to build a collective way of thinking together and resisting together. “When we talk with each other and act together, we reassess what we think, compel others to do the same, and further reflect and deliberate together. . . . This is how we think.” She even suggests that the lack of space to “dialogically engage” is “a special kind of injustice.” Nor does she see those conscientious objectors as lone actors. Think of “Christian pharmacists opposed to prescribing plan-B. . . . When they refuse to honor their clients’ prescriptions, it is generally with the encouragement and approbation of their fellow religionists.” As in the case of militant groups, individual acts of civil disobedience are the tip of an iceberg made possible by social ties beneath the surface.

What the book doesn’t do—probably to its credit, but disappointing to my desperation—is answer the essentially creative question about resistance: How do we learn not only to recognize injustice (easy for us millennials, who see it everywhere) but to conceive of actions designed to directly resist the actions of Trump and the Trump-adjacent? Delmas doesn’t accept our usual excuses for passivity, such as the argument that bourgeois life corrupts any possibility of truly moral action. Still, we face a formidable rival in structural injustice, which is always turning away its opposition at the door and forcing “deliberative inertia.” Delmas isn’t mobilizing us, but she rids the reader of the preconception that civility must be preserved. And for those who feel overburdened? “We shouldn’t expect morality to be anything other than demanding.”

Nausicaa Renner is the digital editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and a senior editor at n+1.