In the essay “Civil Disobedience,” author Henry David Thoreau states that a government rarely proves itself useful, as it is often backed up by the majority, instead of following what is truly right. Thoreau argues that people should not permit the government to overrule their consciousness, nor make them elements of an injust practice. Thoreau strongly believed that every citizen needs to have the ability to express his own opinion, which is independent to that of the majority, and to think about whether the government is doing the right thing before following its policies. He thought that people who only follow the government’s dictation without a second thought lack humanity, and are worth no more than animals. His theory is that when a government is unjust, people should refuse to follow the law and distance themselves from the government. Thoreau believed civil disobedience is the best way of fighting unjust policies because the government can only punish a person’s body but not his spirit. Although some people might see Thoreau as an anti-government person, he is not. He does not desire a government-free society, but rather a country that supports only the policies that are created based on justice. I agree with Thoreau’s idea of civil disobedience because the majority is not always in the right; each man should do what he thinks is right and protest when he sees something unjust.
The majority does not equal rightness. In human history, the idea of a majority is the central aspect of high civilization. However, being a part of the majority does not mean a person is more superior or lawful compared to those in the minority, but only shows that his ideas are more prevalent. In addition, Thoreau states in his essay that “a government, in which the majority rules, in all cases cannot be based on justice, even as far as men understand it” (323). He argues that many of the world’s problems come from the fact that entranced majorities make it impossible for other people to pursue justice as they see it. A good example is the law that was signed by President Andrew Jackson in 1830 – the Indian Removal Act. During the early 18th century, American Indians were seen as a threat that needed to be removed and kept away from the European Americans. The law passed without any trouble because the majority of the people agreed that the Indians were a bad influence to the society. However, evidence has shown that Native Americans did not harm the whites. The only reason they were persecuted was because the white people were greedy and wanted their land. President Jackson agreed with the majority of the U.S citizens that whites were superior to Native Americans, and that the Indians, as a low-class human race, ought to be kept away from them. They claimed that they were doing the right thing because they represented the major voice of the county. However, that does not make it right. In the essay, Thoreau also used the example of slavery and the Mexican War to show that the majority is only a figure of the stronger voice, but not always moral. He believed that an individual should exercise his conscience by refusing his involvement or complacency with the majority or a government that enforces unjust policies. Civil disobedience is therefore a necessary expression of an individual’s conscience.
The government acts according to the majority even if it is wrong; therefore, civil disobedience is good because it makes a person ultimately responsible to him alone, not to the majority of the society or to the government. In his essay, Thoreau argues that individuals are responsible for the injustice in which they participate, and they should have the right to do what they think is right. Furthermore, Thoreau said “The only obligation, which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right” (323). Therefore, being a member of an unjust institution or nation makes a person a participant in injustice. For example, when I was in the seventh grade, there was a girl in my class who was often bullied by a guy who was assigned to sit next to her. Although the girl showed obvious distress toward his taunting and abuses, nobody seemed to have a problem and even enjoyed watching it as if it was a show. I felt bad for her, but never had the courage to stop the situation. After several months, the girl rarely showed up to the class anymore; not long after, she completely disappeared. We were told by a teacher that the girl had left because she suffered from serious depression. My cowardice to stand up to what was wrong became my greatest regret during my high school years. I see myself as a sinner because I did not do what my conscience told me to, and instead I conformed to the majority of my class. If I could go back to seventh grade, I would remove myself from the majority and do what was right because a person should never participate in evil, not even if it is the law. Thoreau argued that if an individual supports the unjust government in any way – even by simply respecting its authority as a government -that person is complicit in injustice forwarded by the government. He believes the absolute right of individuals to withdraw their support from a government whose policies are immoral or unjust. Therefore, citizens should choose to do the right thing, and cease associating with an unjust government.
Another great fact about civil disobedience is that it is based on the idea of nonviolent, peaceful revolution or protest, and the act should only specifically target the injustice at hand. The youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his work through civil disobedience and other non-violent means is Martin Luther King, Jr. His main legacy was to secure progress on civil rights in the United States. He believed the method of nonviolent resistance was the most potent weapon available to oppressed people in their struggle for justice and human dignity. One of the most well known events of the civil revolution movement is the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955. King started the boycott and it lasted for 385 days. He was arrested during this campaign, but the boycott and non-violent protest not only won the attention of the society, but also won the right for black bus passengers to sit virtually anywhere they wanted. Thoreau also shares the same idea of a peaceful protest. One time, he was put into jail because he refused to pay a tax to the government when he knew that they were using that money to fund an immoral project. Thoreau’s confrontation with the state proved to him that physical violence is less powerful than individual conscience because the human body can be contained behind bars, but ideas cannot. His examination not only encouraged his fellow men to undertake in their own conscience, but also inspired people to make the right choice.
The ultimate goal of civil disobedience is not to weaken democracy. Instead, it aims to strengthen its core values of liberty and respect for the individual. In the essay “Civil Disobedience,” author Henry David Thoreau states that the only way a country could be truly free is through civil disobedience, with each citizen having his or her own right and responsibility to voice their concerns in the name of justice. Thoreau’s ideas on civil disobedience are a reminder that it is important to respect every voice even when it is small, because the majority does not equal rightness. Furthermore, each man should respect his own opinion and not only do what he considers right, but also protest that which he considers unjust. Therefore, civil disobedience is every man’s moral responsibility.
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