April 9, 2013

Civil Disobedience and Individual Right Empowerment in US Society


Civil Disobedience is recognized as the pioneer of formal action of society resistance toward government in the history of United States. This term comes in the essay of Henry David Thoreau written in the time of war between America and Mexico during the territorial expansion on purpose of applying the notion of ‘manifest destiny’(Diggins, 1987; Horton & Ewards, 1974; Luedtke, 1990; Sardjana, 1988; Zinn, 1980).

Comes with the idea of not directly obeying every single rule made by the government, civil disobedience has awakened US society to the importance of self dignity and sovereignty. This concept later helps US philosophers to generate the basic principles of individualism in the US history until today’s struggle of individual rights empowerment.

As one of the most significant events in US history, the emergence of civil disobedience shapes the character of US society (Sardjana, 1988; Stevenson, 1998). For being known as the most open and critical society, US citizens have their democracy development as the fastest as well as the role model in the world. This fact is shown clearly in the improvement number of struggle of democracy and human rights –which increases not only in term of amount but also types and medium. Even if US society is hardly involved politically by registering themselves to be part of House of Representatives, their political involvements are expressed through the new form of nowadays civil disobedience. This is exactly tracking the line of Thoreau’s struggle concept of civil disobedience that the regeneration of society must begin with self-regeneration, not political participation (Diggins, 1987).

Most of the previous civil disobedience studies focus merely in portraying this action and relating it with political policy of US government (Diggins, 1987; Horton & Ewards, 1974; Luedtke, 1990; Sardjana, 1988; Taylor, 2000; Zinn, 1980). Somehow, as a democratic country, US put the people to have the highest authority through the idea of government of the society, by the society, and for the society. Therefore democracy gives a big portion of any individual to take part in the running of government, particularly in the decision-making process. *I should explain more: the relation between civil disobedience and the character shaping of US society –something ended with ‘therefore’*

This paper is aimed to improve new understanding of US civil disobedience in the history and the significant effect of its emergence toward US development, specifically in the shaping of US society character as democratic individual.


Civil Disobedience

Opposing the war between US and Mexico, Henry David Thoreau, a writer living in Massachusetts, refused to pay his poll tax in 1846. He was jailed for three days and released after his friend paid it secretly. Thoreau made his lecture of “Resistance to Civil Government” based on essay entitled Civil Disobedience as a critique to government’s decision in Mexican war. Nevertheless, Thoreau did not specifically write his protest toward US government in the detail of the war. As a transcendentalist, he concern more in the idea of self-government; how to see individual as the owner of a high independent authority (Diggins, 1987; Horton & Ewards, 1974; Sardjana, 1988; States, 2005; Zinn, 1980).

Civil Disobedience explain some ‘eternal’ pro-contra issues in many types of society around the world such as majority and minority right, social and individual right, government and society interest, liberal individualism and liberal pluralism, and a brief concept explanation of radical individualism (Diggins, 1987).

Considering the historical emergence background, civil disobedience can be applied whenever any government breaks the role to protect people’s right and safeguard their interest. However, in the case of today’s US application of civil disobedience, many scholars put ‘lack of management’ as the problem of ‘controlling’ civil disobedience (Diggins, 1987; Luedtke, 1990; Stevenson, 1998).

The formula of existence

It is not Thoreau who is the first thinker of civil disobedience even since the idea even has existed in the era of John Locke. The spirit of ‘people as the owner of highest authority’ is actually the main idea of self-government. The typical questions of what so importance important with civil disobedience and why it survives until today can be answered at least by three points of reason; the strong historical background (Mexican War), the political grounds (Declaration of Independence), and the helps of internalized myths in US society (self-made man and woman, American Dream, the Chosen people) that helps the existence of civil disobedience to be one of the nature characterization of today’s US society.

Why does it matter?

The reason why civil disobedience matters for US development can be seen for the society (characteristic) development after the introduction to with the idea of civil disobedience. US society is now well known as the most open and critical society where every governmental action can be viewed more easily through mass media. This nation characteristic is shaped by many factors; one of them is the idea of civil disobedience because of its huge space available for them to be critical toward power and authority outside a man’s.

To be a critical citizen can be simply defined as a ‘protestant’ –who loved nothing so much s to protest, to question, and deny authority(Diggins, 1987; Moten, 2007). For these people, there will be no submissive without questions. The scenario when the people approve the government system or rule only happens after the negotiation, at least one which placed inside them. The negotiation, also known as US culture of self-criticize, deals with questioning and re-thinking its benefits to take decision or action. It can be sum up that there is no ‘governmental works’ which is not under their supervision. As a form of civil disobedience, this culture is now still exist –and even grows bigger– in US society.

Civil Disobedience in US society nowadays

Today’s civil disobedience comes with the different reasons, forms, and media. Their acts are legally protected by the government under some specific laws such as The Freedom of Information Act (1966) and The Privacy Act (1974) that allow all Americans to see whatever information government agencies, federal, state, and local, might have on them (Stevenson, 1998). Considering Thoreau’s proposal of the not-a-big-sense for politically involved in the parliament, US people tend to express their disobedience through some popular products and art works.

Movies, music, and literary works protesting government policies are spread out and consumed with no boundaries. The birth of new media significantly helps the people to ‘shout’ their protest to government more easily. In all cases of this new movement, the idea of civil disobedience is highlighted in the individual effort of preserving the self-dignity over every outer authority and power. However, critiques rise to these new ways of civil disobedience as it is judged to be less effective compared to its historical victory.


The spirit of civil disobedience comes since the revolution of US which is manifested in the Declaration of Independence. This concept still exists as the process of democracy development of US society. Civil disobedience expands as one of the political idea of US government as well as the indicator of US people’s characteristic. To be a critical-minded individual as part of US society means to have a society consist of people who are aware of their power and authority. Therefore, in the development of US society, the emergence of civil disobedience is significant to create the idea of individual rights empowerment of which self dignity, authority, sovereignty is uphold.


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