The Role of Civil Disobedience
In the tempestuous climate of personal attack politics, xenophobia, and the global resurgence of tribalism under the moniker of “nationalism,” civility has been maligned in books and articles, social media, and so forth. Seen only within the context of the first level of compassion, “pacifying or peaceful,” to those who overtly protest or act in indignant response to the forces which seem oblivious or non-responsive to sickness, poverty, and warfare, civility is seen as a form of social control; a way of keeping the masses in line, compliant.
That civility can be expanded to include the expressions I have thus described is, therefore, unthinkable, revolutionary – not really in keeping with the way in which the conventional mind wishes to keep civility in the “ play nice” box. In a recent Facebook tet-a-tet, I was called to defend my expanded view of civility and its place in social and cultural change and transformation. For civility to be only defined as an affect, a benign response clearly does not do the term justice or reveal the power it has when applying the Five Steps of Wise Action and a more appropriate, dynamic form of compassionate speech or action. This brings us to the topic of civil disobedience.
Civil Disobedience falls under the last category of compassion – wrathful. To explain this more fully, let us break this phrase down, first.
Obedience involves the following of rules, laws, someone, or something because they are expected to be followed, by those creating the rules, the laws, the pecking order or such, sometimes by those who think they should or feel compelled to do so, or both.
In this respect, there are three levels of obedience. First and the form where there is the greatest power disparity is that of submission; where following the rule, the law, the ideology, the lord of the manner is not only expected, but there are proscribed consequences for not doing so. Then there is an obedience where the rational or justification for following such or being under the banner of an ideology, or leader is that one sees merit or something of value in obedience to such. In this there is a subtle line between and sometimes a combination of submission with a willful abdication of personal responsibility. Although this may create social harmony and a general sense of pacifying-type civility, whenever there is a power differential or a deference based on social or cultural norms, things do change. Furthermore, rarely do those whose power or mandates, which have been legitimated by fitting the times, give up their advantage when change is needed for the general good. Thus abdication of personal responsibility can slide into unwilling submission. Finally, there is obedience that comes from a mutual, “on the level” understanding. Thus, like the paramita or perfection of discipline, there is actual joy and benefit that comes from adherence to such.
If the time and circumstance we find ourselves in is no longer one of mutual benefit, where obedience becomes coerced or demanding of submission, then the civil approach that which speaks to our basic goodness, must lead us to distance ourselves from such adherence. As stated previously in different ways, civility is dependent upon being on the level, where there is mutuality – or at least respect – even when there is a social, cultural, or spiritual disparity to which people subscribe.
What is the consequence when your position is “I regret to inform you that…” when you do not comply with the norms or legitimated laws, edicts, or rulers of which or to whom you have been – up to this point – obedient? Consider Nelson Mandala; imprisoned. An Sang Suchi – imprisoned. Martin Luther King -assassinated. Mohandas Gandhi – assassinated. In the disparity of power, denial or disregard of the civil rights or benefits that create for a more just society, it becomes inevitable that those challenging to these structures or rules become vilified, become seen as dissidents, malcontents, even terrorists, regardless of whether their actions and words are peaceful or confrontational. Then again, when coercion and force are used to suppress these malcontents, at what point can we say that reciprocal force is not unwarranted? In this, I am reminded of the words of the late Tibetan Buddhist Master, the Thirteenth Kunzig Shamar Rinpoche, who spoke of the necessity to sometimes wage what he called a “white war.” (Footnote 2)
Does this mean, therefore, that if the underdog or the righteous side of a “white war” proves victorious over the short or long term, that there will not be consequences? After all, we see that in the working of relative reality situations, there is always a variation of hell to pay. The champions we have highlighted above were eloquent, charismatic, and demonstrative of propriety in a straightforward way. Their actions and words did catalyze or at least contributed to significant cultural and societal change. But other than their own trials and tribulations, there were many in their ranks that likewise suffered similar fates. And the results sought remain works in progress. Consider “Black lives matter,” the “Me Too” movement, the time it takes to root out greed, corruption, and power mongering. That is why, for the changes sought to become more real and lasting, there needs to be an awareness of those qualities or traits that can undermine, slow down, even subvert the course of basic goodness envisioned in the world; greed, self-righteousness, revenge, and so forth.
In the case of America, we know that George Washington was an ardent believer in and aspiring practitioner of civility. And, yet, he was also a soldier, a general, and eventually the President of a country he supported in disobedience to what he and other defined as a tyrannical regime. As we reference President George Washington, with all the flaws, omissions, and unintended consequences of the American Revolution, and acknowledging that the very formation of this country had its own bloody history of conquest and slavery, many contend as do I that there was a genuine attempt to envision a different future. The men and women, the Founding Mothers and Fathers of America, were striving for a “more perfect union.” Otherwise, the provisions of the First and Second Amendments of the American Constitution would not have been the first and second principles upon which to form the United States; a nation that to this day is still aspiring to be a true democracy.
Amendment ONE: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and
to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
This Amendment embodies a civil way of engaging in promoting truth and seeking to express grievances to elicit dialogue and change. And, our first three forms of compassion, Peaceful, Enrichment, and Magnetizing are the methodologies that can help in the processes of maintaining civility in the change process. It is important to note that Enriching Compassion, dependent on education was a major feature of what the formers of America felt to be needed for “true” democracy to prevail and be sustainable. Thus we see Washington being a champion for primary school education and a general agreement that there needs to be an availability of classical education in order to build an informed, civil electorate.
Amendment TWO: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
This Amendment is more in line with the final form of compassion – wrathful.
Thomas Jefferson once commented that any country that wished to promote freedom and democracy needed to have a periodic revolution in order to avoid the resurgence and the inevitable slide back into tyranny. For civil society to be maintained, there need to be watchdogs, the soldiers of wrathful compassion, to ensure that the principles and practices “of the people, for the people, and by the people,” be safeguarded. Hence, a separation between church and state and the independent functioning of branches of government are fundamental. But, just in case those of legitimated authority or in ruling positions in representative government get too full of themselves, there are always the people – and their guns.
This aforementioned option is a last and regrettable resort. For civil disobedience in both normal or extraordinary forms (i.e. revolutions) to be carried out in the most civil way possible, due diligence should be made to temper the heat of rising passions by employing the Five Steps of Wise Action, the civility as exemplified in the first three forms of compassion, and then step forward into this wrathful expression with a clarity of mind and heart that especially guards itself against self-righteousness. For this latter expression, self-righteousness is the poison that makes one anesthetized to vengeful actions, which, inevitably, spawn the most heinous reactions. In the chapter on “Mind Training” there will be a further explication on this point.
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There are many aspects of wisdom and levels of compassion, so civility demonstrates itself effectively in different guises, all rooted in the same basic goodness, all intended from the same altruistic outlook. A “one size fits all” civility cannot meet the challenges of all the different ways in which people act as individuals or groups when the Three Poisons fuel reactivity and division. The goal of this chapter has been to point to action steps and approaches that will make civility dynamic and effective. Civility thus demonstrates itself as an essential rather than merely affective tool for change.