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Fear is an Intrinsic Part of Civil Disobedience

Michael Daniel Unit B Core
Dr. Botelho November 28, 2006

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

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

Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience (Indiana, PA: Pro-Packet) p.21
King, Letter. 158
King, Letter, 158

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
King, Letter p.156

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 non-

violent 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

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

Thoreau, Civil Disobedience p.35
King, Letter p.156
Thoreau, Civil Disobedience p.31

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