Non-Violent Direct Action (NVDA) is a way to affect social change without requiring the insurrection against society often pronounced as the only solution by gun advocates. This is an overview of the existential basis and an example of its success.
"Disobedience, in the eyes of any one who has read history, is man's original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion." - Oscar Wilde ([i])
In his essay "Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem" ([ii]), Erich Fromm observes how disobedience is a fundamental keystone in the infrastructure of civilization, both in its inception and its perpetuation. His thesis is that "human history began with an act of disobedience, and it is not unlikely that it will be terminated by an act of obedience" ([ii]). One particular type of disobedience, civil disobedience, can be effective in averting a society's gradual or cataclysmic self-destruction. However, to be successful in this purpose, civil disobedience must still conform to a deeper set of laws, even while apparently contravening tenets imposed by those in positions of power. If these deeper laws are denied or ignored, disobedience is ineffective, except in satisfying some inner need of the rebels themselves. If these deeper laws are acknowledged, disobedience can affect profound transformations at many levels.
According to Fromm, participants in effective acts of civil disobedience are revolutionaries, seeking freedom from unethical or immoral laws. By contrast, those seeking fame or self-realization, rather than social correction, are not revolutionaries but rebels. This is a fine but important distinction for those who would choose to disobey. As Fromm states, "if a man can only obey and not disobey, he is a slave; if he can only disobey and not obey, he is a rebel (not a revolutionary); he acts out of anger, disappointment, resentment, yet not in the name of a conviction or principle." To illustrate this point, Fromm points to inspirational revolutionary figures such as Antigone and Prometheus: Greek mythical figures also cited by Albert Camus in The Rebel ([iii] ), a French inspirational work with the same viewpoint as Fromm's essay.[iv]), which contravened authority but was required, by the religion of that time, for him to obtain redemption and reach the afterworld paradise, Elysium.
She contravened authority because otherwise, as Fromm states, "by obeying the inhuman laws of the State, Antigone would necessarily disobey the laws of humanity" ([vii]). Fromm, recognizing the dichotomy between civil disobedience and moral law therein defined, then attempts to form several complex distinctions ('autonomous' versus 'heteronomous' obedience, 'authoritarian' versus 'humanitarian' consciousness, etc.). However, Fromm's distinctions do not provide any clear schema for evaluating the effectiveness of a disobedient act in transforming society. As such, Fromm's distinctions are not useful to the purposes of this short essay, which seeks a simpler method of discernment.[v]), is another primal archetype for the revolutionary. As Fromm observes, Prometheus chooses physical incarceration over mental subservience ([vi]) -- But for what reason? Fromm does not attempt to determine the reason. He explores in depth how courage, maturity, and freedom are required for disobedience ([xi]). Fromm indirectly states that revolutionaries "act in the name of a conviction or principle" (see [iii], again). Beyond that, however, Fromm avoids defining the motivation for disobedience -- perhaps because the answer was too frightening to him.
Camus, on the other hand, was courageous enough to seek the deeper motivation for disobedience, stating that revolutionaries are "motivated by the fight against death, messianism, philanthropy, a sense of dignity" ( [vi] ).[vii]), Frankl ([viii]), and other witnesses of torture and concentration camps, such commitment can persist even to death. Indeed, over the long term, the very survival of a culture directly derives from its tolerance and response to illegal acts.
For example, at the time of Frankl's incarceration, the Soviet Republic so valued the State's well being that individuals were forbidden to express contrarian views. "The Soviet leaders talk much about revolutions, and we in the free world talk much about freedom," Fromm stated. "Yet they and we discourage disobedience - in the Soviet Union explicitly and by force, in the free world more implicitly and by persuasion" ( [v] ). The Soviet society that was so intolerant of disobedience it collapsed ( [x] ), whereas the U.S.A. flourishes.
Fromm underpins the necessity of disobedience in his conclusion that "at this point in history the capacity to doubt, to criticize and disobey may be all that stands between a future for mankind and the end of civilization" ( [iii] , emphasis added). The issue for the rebel is whether doubting, criticizing and disobeying are the only options to avoid such undesirable futures as war, famine, plague, and totalitarianism.
When society is heading towards calamity (small or large), doubt is the first spark that illuminates the pending disaster. Public criticism is the first warning that corrective action is required. If criticisms go unheeded, disobedience is the last line of defense before revolution, civil war, and in the nuclear era, the very real possibility of genocide.
It may seem I overstate the profound importance of disobedience in social evolution. Therefore, it seems justifiable to substantiate these views from personal experience. On the dawn of a freezing New Year's Day, 1983, 44 peace protestors broke into a U.S. Air Force base and danced on the silo of a nuclear bomb; and one of those peace activists was my mother, Sarah Meyer. After four years, the activists were still there, and my mother was still there. Five years after that, the nuclear bombs were gone.
It was a long and painful victory for her. On occasion I met her during her civil protest. I remember the freezing cold. She was often hard pressed for food and fuel. She rarely had enough clothing or water for washing. She was scorned, spurned, and ostracized by citizens who believed themselves more responsible than her - citizens who would rather condone murder of innocents by nuclear war than care about the good of the world. But greater persecution only strengthened her resolve.
Spiritually, her ideals had empowered her into a 'superconscious' state, by which means she was elevated above the normal human condition. Becoming oblivious to suffering in a transcendent revelation of our superego, she identified ourselves as superhuman; as stated by Camus, "Like Prometheus, we are willing to be condemned forever because we refuse to ask forgiveness. We shake our chains and cry out, oblivious, 'See the injustice I endure!'" [xii]. The power of the superconscious state, to elevate us above suffering, can enable great deeds, both good and evil--it is for the individual to decide and know that such extreme effort should only be made for ultimately peaceful principles, such as protection of persecuted minorities and saving human life.
In the process of demonstrating our ideological commitment via acts of overt disobedience, we obtain a spiritual connection with deeper forces, inspiring us to become a player in a grander drama. Instead of being isolated individuals in conflict with authority, we become participants in a progressive, evolutionary order, wherein we disobey societal laws but still act in accordance with a grander, more universal law--that of cultivating peace and betterment of human life. In our eyes, as apparently disobedient revolutionaries, this grander law supersedes and nullifies the makeshift superiority of the current, more transient sources of authority. Only if we keep the grander and more fundamental spiritual law in mind can we transform the souls of those who, unaware of the consequence of their innocence or ignorance, otherwise perpetuate the unthinkable.
As time passed, many of the authorities responsible for punishing my Mother's disobedience were so impressed by her, they joined her side. Her disobedience transformed them, and they were astonished, not just by the transformation, but by the horrendous beliefs they had so unthinkingly adopted for so long. Eventually, her persistence won the hearts of all around her, and the U.S. Air Force was asked to remove their nuclear bombs from our land.
Peace activists cannot take sole credit for ending the cold war, but without such activism, many would not have understood the horror of what humankind almost did to itself. This inner societal transformation--where we as individuals affected attitudinal changes in individuals around us--is as much part of the evolution of society as the changing laws of government.
The interaction of us all together, in the various disobedient ways we react to amoral or unjustified authority, provides an adaptive reactionary system that shapes future changes in culturally defined ethical and legal systems. Over time, this interaction inevitably creates a more perfect world, just as Fromm's prophets foresee "a new paradise created by man himself, and one which he alone could create" (#3).
What are the fundamental laws that must be obeyed to reach such a paradise? Acts to increase peace must themselves be non-violent. Acts of protest against an order must themselves be in accordance with a deeper order. Formalized protocols and written laws attempt to capture the intent of the deeper, unwritten law that shines behind the biblical commandments and national constitutions.
Without deliberate acts of disobedience, the complex infrastructure of formalized protocols and unwritten laws governing societal attitudes and behaviors would be too inflexible, and the system of government would collapse. Disobedience is thus a critical catalyst in the ongoing development of more perfect societies. Great leaders in civil disobedience -- individuals such as Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn -- also know how disobedience can elevate us above the normal human condition and engender an unforgettable, profound spiritual transformation. That is the power of disobedience: the power to create paradise, not just on earth, but within each of us, here and now, and for the evermore.
- "The Soul of Man Under Socialism," Oscar Wilde, Fortnightly Review (London, Feb. 1891).
- "Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem," Erich Fromm (1963).
- The Rebel, Albert Camus (1951), II. "Metaphysical Rebellion: The Sons of Cain," trans. By Librarie Gallimard (1956) New York: Random House.
- Antigone is the second play in the Oedipus trilogy by the Greek playwright Sophocles. During the Second World War, the French playwright Jean Anouilh also wrote and produced a version on the Antgone myth during the Nazi occupation of Paris. In Anouilh's version, Antigone represented the French revolutionaries. The Nazis however did not recognize the allusions, and were puzzled why the play was so popular.
- Also known as Titan, Prometheus is the antagonist in Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) and Percy Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound (1820 A.D.).
- "He proudly says 'I would rather be chained to this rock than be the obedient servant of the Gods.'" From Erich Fromm, "Disobedience as a Psychological and Moral Problem," (1963).
- Aleksandr Isayevich Solzenytsyn, in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) and The Gulag Archipelago (1973-1975), exposed the brutality of the Soviet labor camp system. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1970.
- Viktor Frankl, "Experiences in a Concentration Camp" (1939), Repr. (New York) Pocket Books, Man's Search for Meaning (1963).
- Ironically, Russia's sudden adoption of Capitalist principles merely instigated innumerable acts of selfishly motivated disobedience. With no legal or ethical infrastructure to protect itself from the negative consequences of the Western creed it so suddenly embraced, the Soviet Union is now reeling in the grips of corruption and ruinous strife. Society must tolerate disobedience but it cannot be naive about the motives for disobedient acts. Humankind does not always rebel in unselfish ways. In responding to acts of disobedience, society needs to consider the underlying motivation for the counter-cultural behavior.
- Cultures sometimes overcompensate when adjusting to changing conditions. Disobedience can then act as a safety valve, providing expressive powers to dissatisfied individuals and centralizing focus during an over-correction. Disobedience is thus a fundamental component in the homeostatic system of an evolving civilization, rectifying social imbalances.
- The Rebel, Albert Camus (1951), II. "Metaphysical Rebellion: The Sons of Cain," trans. By Librarie Gallimard (1956) New York: Random House. Here Camus quotes from the Greek play Prometheus, by Aeschelus.