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Michael Daniel Dr. Botelho
Unit B Core November 28, 2006
2 Fear is a fundamental organizing principle of government.1 People created governments because they feared lawlessness. When civil disobedience is used, the people correct an injustice by causing the government to fear lawlessness. The connection between fear and civil disobedience has been largely ignored by leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Henry Thoreau. What they overlooked is that fear is an intrinsic part of civil disobedience because fear is the cause of civil disobedience and fear is the mechanism by which civil disobedience achieves its goals. Fear commonly arises from a feeling of uncertainty. People experience uncertainty and fear about the government when they are disenfranchised. The government experiences uncertainty and fear towards its people when the people protest, ask for change, or break the law. The mutual fear felt between the government and the people is the mechanism that makes civil disobedience work. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote that civil disobedience could be described in four basic steps: “… collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action.”2 Fear is the motive behind each of these steps. In the first two steps the government inflicts fear upon the people. Steps three and four are concerned with the people inflicting fear upon the government. In the first step of civil disobedience facts are collected in order to determine whether or not injustices exist. Disenfranchisement is an injustice. Thoreau illustrated this when he wrote that: The government itself… is equally liable to be abused and perverted before the people can act through it. Witness the present Mexican war, the work of
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince (New York: Bantam, 1981) p.59-61 Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter From a Birmingham Jail (Indiana: Pro-Packet) p.156
3 comparatively a few individuals using the standing government as their tool; for, in the outset, the people would not have consented to the measure.3 Thoreau believed that the Mexican war was being waged in spite of the will of the American people, which is by definition disenfranchisement of the people. Disenfranchisement was unjust therefore the war was unjust. Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that disenfranchisement was unjust. This is how he described an unjust law: A law is unjust if it is inflicted on a minority that, as a result of being denied the right to vote, had no part in enacting or devising the law.4 King believed that racial segregation in Birmingham was unjust because it was inflicted upon the disenfranchised black minority by the white majority. He described the injustice of segregation: … when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments… I hope, sirs, that you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.5 This fear caused a call for an immediate solution to the problem of segregation, which led to step two of civil disobedience. Without fear there would be no progression from step one to step two. Step two of civil disobedience is negotiation. Martin Luther King attempted to solve the problems in Birmingham thru negotiation when he met with the economic community there. King showed that he was willing to pursue civil means to fix the injustices in the city of Birmingham, but the merchants of the city negotiated in bad faith. He explained this when he described his negotiations with the city: In the course of the negotiations, certain promises were made by the merchants… the leaders of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights agreed to a
3 4 5
Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (Indiana, PA: Pro-Packet) p.21 King, Letter. 158 King, Letter, 158
4 moratorium on all demonstrations. As the weeks and months went by, we realized that we were the victims of a broken promise… our hopes had been blasted, and the shadow of a deep disappointment settled upon us.6 The evidence that they had been lied to demonstrated to the black community that they were completely disenfranchised. King wrote: “We had no alternative except to prepare for direct action.”7 By “direct action”, King meant non-violent marches and sit-ins. Disenfranchisement led to fear which caused the people to call for direct action. If the people did not experience fear then there would be no call for direct action. Step three was to prepare for direct action by teaching protestors to control their fear during a protest. King and Thoreau did this because their followers’ ability to control their own fears during a protest was the mechanism which allowed the protesters to intimidate the government without letting the government intimidate them. King and Thoreau feared that if the government could intimidate protestors into refusing to protest then the direct action campaign would fail. They also feared that if the government could intimidate protestors into becoming violent then the direct action campaign would become a civil war. A civil war would probably not have been in the best interests of the protestors, since protestors are usually outgunned by the government. If King and Thoreau did not experience these fears then they would not have bothered with preparing their protestors. In order to engage in non-violent direct action, King’s protesters had to be mentally prepared to, “Accept blows without retaliating” and to “endure the ordeal of jail.”8 King held workshops in order to make sure that his protesters were taught how to control their fear when they were physically assaulted. Thoreau’s followers put
King, Letter p.156 King, Letter p.156 8 King, Letter p.156
5 themselves at risk for incarceration. He prepared his readers for incarceration by telling them that prison was a wonderful place because it feels like traveling back in time to a beautiful medieval village.9 These preparations by King and Thoreau show that it is imperative to protect protestors from the effects of fear. If protestors did not experience fear then this step would not exist, therefore, fear is intrinsic to the preparation stage of civil disobedience. Step four was direct action. Direct action is when non-violent protest is used to create fear in the government. This fear is intended to force the government to negotiate in good faith. King used social pressure against Birmingham when he organized nonviolent demonstrations and sit-ins in the business district of the city. King wrote that the purpose of this was to impose economic pressure on the city: Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.10 This economic pressure caused the city government to negotiate honestly with King out of fear of what would happen to the city’s economy if they did not. While King’s direct action had both social and economic components, Thoreau’s idea of non-violent protest was completely economic in nature. Thoreau wrote that, “If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the state will not hesitate which to choose.”11 Thoreau was trying to convince people to stop paying taxes until the government gave up war and slavery. This non-violent direct action would adversely effect the country economically. Thoreau’s goal was to force the government to correct the injustice out of fear of what would happen to the country’s economy if they
9 10 11
Thoreau, Civil Disobedience p.35 King, Letter p.156 Thoreau, Civil Disobedience p.31
6 did not. This shows that the end goal of civil disobedience is to correct an injustice by causing the government to experience fear. Fear is an intrinsic part of civil disobedience. The mutual fear and uncertainty between the people and the government does not always entail civil disobedience. Sometimes it causes terror, tyranny and totalitarianism. Hannah Arendt wrote that, … on one hand, fear as the principle of action, namely fear of the people by the ruler and fear of the ruler by the people, on the other-, these have been the hallmarks of tyranny throughout our tradition.12 Arendt went on to describe how fear plus uncertainty about what the government will do leads to terror and totalitarianism.13 Arendt was correct, however, mutual fear between the government and the people is not always a mechanism for totalitarianism. It can also be the mechanism by which civil disobedience works. As we have seen, fear is an intrinsic part of civil disobedience. King was a great leader but he also used fear in order to attain his goals in Birmingham. Sometimes fear is simply a tool that can be used to control people. The nature of fear is neither good nor evil. We should remember that whenever someone is trying to intimidate us they usually want us to react out of fear. If we do not react from that emotion but instead react from a clear mind, then we will not be subject to the will of the person who is trying to intimidate us. If we have a goal that we want to achieve then fear can help us do that under certain circumstances. If our purpose is good then there is nothing wrong with inflicting fear in order to achieve that purpose.
Hannah Arendt, Ideology and Terror: A Novel Form of Government (class handout) p.89 Arendt, Ideology and Terror p.93-94
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