“Every idea is an incitement. It offers itself for belief and if believed is acted on unless some other belief outweighs it or some failure of energy stifles the movement at birth.”

Justice Oliver W. Holmes Jr.


“I have always believed that I should have had no difficulty in causing my rights to be respected.”

Eli Whitney


The limits of conscientious objection and civil disobedience is, well, the law. Okay. Not really. The limits are actually part of the social fabric of what society accepts. The truth is the machinery of legal order most typically establishes its enforcement when the social contract breaks down. What I just wrote shouldn’t be that controversial, but in today’s world there is always someone shouting “without laws there is chaos.” The problem is laws really shouldn’t be applied in all cases. Yup. I just said that.

Indiscriminate self-righteousness – or individual moral judgements – have limits within a citizenry and when the citizens themselves, the social judgement, cannot agree that is when law steps in.

Which leads me to say violence is not in the purview of those rebelling.

It is not only not within the law it isn’t within the overall social contract. Righteousness does not equal right.  Regardless. Righteousness, in almost all forms, is disciplined by risk. And that is where violence steps into the conversation. There is no such thing as ‘well intended violence.’ We may be empathetic towards the reasons, but never to the means. On the other hand, nonviolent interference into the normal everyday activities of the rest of the world should be expected and should be seen as almost the inevitable actions of civil disobedience of citizens with reasonable reason to showcase disobedience to a system/society. We should actually celebrate these activities, no matter how annoying they may be to our own lives, and maybe even lean in and listen.

We should listen because violence, or let’s call it extreme civil disobedience (which may or may not include actual violence), is usually a reflection of heightened frustration. This is different than rebellion. True rebels have established no allegiance to the legal order (no matter how they may twist their version of legality). The reason most people balk at true rebels and rebellious behavior is because it is incoherent to natural societal coherence. ON a side note, I think Jefferson was a bit misguided in his rebellion thinking but that’s a topic for another day. But this is where things go awry in today’s world. we confuse civil disobedience, rebellious behavior and even violence because we don’t view them with trying to understand but rather by our ideology. I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a healthy society should be judging individual behavior against itself, the societal norms, and not ideology.

Which leads me to anyone who purposefully disobeys a law, or purposefully stretches the law’s intent, pits the individual judgement against society’s judgement.

Righteousness of motives is judged by everyone else. And this is where things go awry in today’s world. in the wayback machine everyone else’s judgement wasn’t tainted by ideology, only by what they sensed as right or wrong. In today’s world people seem to have settled into a simplistic binary world – “if we do not follow the law (strictly), we are no longer a country of laws” versus, well, any other view than that. There is a portion of the world that goes to the most simplistic definition because it is easier to make a stand. The problem is the world is driven by nuance. Shit. Even law demands a bit of nuance. And therein lies the issue. Disobedience defies definitions while society assesses definitions and ideology demands definitions. The truth is society makes exceptions all the time and these exceptions are not made by the process of logic; but by the rules of prudence. Its part of what Edmund Burke suggested: “the notion of an established form of social life with the notion of an established set of institutional arrangements.” What I mean by that is ideas flow, even disobedient ones, and that’s why civil disobedience has always influenced culture. And what I mean by that is, well, it is inadmissible even when it may feel admissible and, yet, admissible within strict inadmissible rules. This happens because society is malleable to prudence and judgement. I state that because there are boundaries in identifying the limits of permissible civil disobedience and protest, but we would be naïve to think that “whoever is in power in government will peddle their preferences on what is right and what is wrong and what is within the limits and what is not.” The truth is the ‘law’ is simply a weapon wielded by the ones in power.

In the end.

I would argue that if the citizenry of a society continuously use law to settle their grievances, the law will fail. You cannot expect the legal system to decide what is the right thing to do. The truth is society judges what is right and wrong, legal and illegal, and admissible and inadmissible. Unless maybe if you are a judge, saying “it is just the law” to justify something, is lazy. The law is the last resort to deciding right or wrong because if that is the point we have arrived at, we, society, have failed in our duty to judge well. Ponder.

Written by Bruce