civil disobedience

When someone breaks a law because she thinks the law is stupid, we call it “civil disobedience.” Well, there’s a little more to it than that. Usually the lawbreaker believes the law is immoral or unfair, or she’s breaking one law to draw attention to some other issue she feels very strongly about.

We’ll tell you who made up the term in a moment, but first: Do you think he was on the side of the lawbreaker or the law defender? Let’s explore the possibilities:

On one hand, “disobedience” is a word usually directed at children and unruly dogs, so it’s easy to imagine a politician using “civil disobedience” to dismiss an impassioned political statement from his or her enemies: If you refuse to give up your seat to protest racist transportation laws or you chain yourself to the mailbox at the CEO of Blackwater’s house to protest mercenary violence, you are essentially peeing on the bookcase or staying up past your bedtime. Run along now.

But on the other hand, “civil disobedience” has more than twice as many syllables in it as “criminal,” which means it could be a euphemism intended to elicit sympathy from one’s potential jailers. “I’m not a criminal, Your Honor. I only broke Jimmy’s crayons in half because he kept trying to legislate away my human rights.”

Turns out, the term came from an American writer who often encouraged people to break rules they thought were stupid. Our kind of guy.