In the past, violence was often used as a means of bringing changes to the society, and even now such a strategy is perceived as something can be morally justified. In the course of its history, the United States also passed through periods when violent actions appealed to many people who tried to eradicate different forms of injustice such as slavery.
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In his famous essay Civil Disobedience, Henry Thoreau describes the actions of a citizen who believes that a state is either unable or unwilling to serve people. This author is very cautious when he discusses the resistance to the state. In particular, he believes that there are cases when people have a moral right to “rebel and revolutionanize”1.
However, he believes that it should be the last resort for people when they think that there is no other way of affecting the policies of a state. They should remember that it is usually not necessary to rely on brutal force, when a person tries to express his/her disagreement with the policies of political leaders.
Overall, it is possible to argue that violence cannot be regarded as a legitimate way of civil disobedience because it implies that an individual rejects the idea of law and dialogue between a person and the government. Such an approach will not bring sufficient improvements into the life of the community.
It should be noted that in his essay, Henry Thoreau openly criticizes the government of the United States. In particular, he pays close attention to the existence of slavery in the country and the legitimate status of this social phenomenon. This is why he believes that a person should act as “counter-friction to stop the machine” of cruelty and injustice. 2
From his point of view, it is immoral for a person to tolerate the existence of a political system that condones slavery. It is a duty of an individual to express his/her civil discontent. This argument is even more explicit when one speaks about Henry Thoreau’s defense of a famous rebel John Brown who took violent actions against slave-owners in the United States.
In Thoreau’s opinion, this person was a noble rebel, rather than a terrorist3 and his actions might have some ethical justifications. Therefore, one should not assume that this writer advocated only non-violent means of resistance. Such an assumption would be too idealistic and inaccurate. This is one of the main points that should be made.
Admittedly, Thoreau’s viewpoints concerning the vicious aspects of slavery were correct, but he was too radical when he considered the possibility to use violence to fight various social wrongs. This view of civil disobedience can be dangerous.
The problem is that in the course of history even the noblest intentions of individuals could turn into violence and bloodshed that can be extremely devastating. This argument is particular important when one speaks about French and Russian revolutions that lead to the creation of totalitarian and unjust regimes.
This is the main dangers that people should be aware of when they discuss different forms of civil disobedience. Their public protest must not involve violence because it may completely undermine the efforts of many activists.
It is important to remember about the cost of violent protest. Thousands of people should not die to make politicians think differently and try to address really important issues. More importantly, one should keep in mind that brutal force does not usually help people to develop rational solutions.
Therefore, even if people achieve their objectives through violence, it is not likely that they will create a well-functioning and just state. Thoreau also suggested that people did not have to pay taxes if they wanted to express their discontent. Nonetheless, this behavior could give rise to violence against citizens.
Refusal to pay taxes is regarded as a crime against the state itself, and it could result in a conflict between an individual and the state. In fact, this type of civil disobedience suggested by Thoreau can disrupt the dialogue between the community and the government.
On the whole, the idea of civil disobedience is still relevant to modern people who may not be content with the policies of the government. In his essay, Henry Thoreau attempts to describe the ways of public protests. It is possible to agree with the idea that an individual should not tolerate the existence of injustice.
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Nevertheless, rebellion or revolution should not be regarded as a means of expressing disagreement. Very often, it can only bring bloodshed and violence, and in this way, one cannot create any improvements in the lives of people. Certainly, it is not permissible to tolerate the existence of corrupt governments or cruel laws in a society.
This argument is particularly relevant when one speaks about slavery. Nevertheless, people should find ways of expressing disagreement without violence.
Thoreau, Henry. Civil Disobedience. Boston: Hayes Barton Press, 2012.
Thoreau, Henry. A Plea For Captain John Brown. New York: Kessinger Publishing, 2012.
1 Henry, Thoreau. Civil Disobedience. (Boston: Hayes Barton Press, 2012), p. 5
2 Ibid. p. 9
3 Henry, Thoreau. A Plea For Captain John Brown. (New York: Kessinger Publishing, 2012), p. 7.