Context and Civil Disobedience

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These are a couple of posts that came across my social media feed today. As someone who supports the right of gay people to marry if they want (and of people, gay or straight, to choose not to marry without being shamed), I will be happy when there are no more clerks refusing to accept social change.

That said, we are at an interesting moment when people who admire Rosa Parks are saying, “It is the law of the land, you have to follow it.”

The memes above are viscerally satisfying, but the problem with them is that they open up the people who posted them to exactly the same charges of hypocrisy and contradiction. If the underlying question is “Should people engage in civil disobedience?” or “Should people always obey the law?” These are nonsense questions. Anyone who answers the question as posed is made into a hypocrite. The only reasonable answer to such a question is, “I don’t know. What law are we talking about?”

The real question is not “should you follow laws?” It is “which laws must be followed and which should be resisted?” It is not “Should people engage in civil disobedience?” It is “when is it necessary to stand with society and when should you stand against it?”

There is a time to cast away stones and a time to gather stones together.

When I watch a Kentucky clerk going to jail to avoid issuing a marriage license to a couple of guys I think, “Really? That’s the thing? With all of the problems in the world– a couple of middle-aged guys wanting to have their status as a couple legally recognized– this is the one you’re willing to go to the mat for?”

The fundamentalist Christian county clerk and her supporters certainly would take a different view of an “activist” who refused to give gun licenses. (That one is much easier to get around, though. You can buy a gun at a gun show or on the internet without a license. Getting married is more regulated.) They would also be appalled by a clerk who chose what services to provide based on fundamentalist Muslim belief.  They may have cheered Donald Trump when he had Univision reporter Jorge Ramos escorted out of his press conference for asking questions without being called on. You have to follow the rules.

People will always feel differently about those who follow and those who resist laws and social conventions based on how they feel about those laws and social conventions. That’s not hypocrisy and contradiction.  Context matters.

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