Tijdschrift voor filosofie
sinds 1969

De Pen

Breaking the Rules

Natasha Basu

In 2003, when the United States invaded Iraq, I remember feeling shocked, confused and disappointed in my government. The first night of the invasion was televised. Bombs were dropped from the sky, and neon flashes of light appeared to obliterate the buildings they landed upon. I could not imagine the obliteration, nor could I ever really understand the carnage and loss of life that came with it. To demonstrate our disapproval of the war, students at my high school took part in a “walk out”. During class in the afternoon, we would all simultaneously get up from our seats and leave our classrooms. I remember feeling terrified at the thought of breaking the rules, but it was the first time I felt that I really needed to. 


In my research, I examine movements that use civil disobedience, i.e. movements that break the rules in order to communicate their disapproval of unjust laws and policies. For me, one of the most fascinating parts of this research is to understand why, and at what point people feel the need to disobey. Almost four years ago, I started my PhD within the project Transformations of Civil Disobedience: Democratization, Globalization, Digitalization. The project begins with the diagnosis that the existing conceptions of civil disobedience are not sufficient to explain current forms of civil disobedience in our globalized and digitalized contexts. My aim is to rethink the way that civil disobedience is conceptualized in light of today’s globalized world. 


The standard conception of civil disobedience comes from John Rawls, who describes civil disobedience as a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of the law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies. Rawls’ conception is meant for what he refers to as a nearly just liberal democratic society. In such a society, civil disobedience can serve as a way to address any remaining injustices that cannot be solved through more formal channels of lawmaking alone. Other important conceptions of civil disobedience come from Jürgen Habermas and Hannah Arendt, who also emphasize the role that civil disobedience can play in solving democratic deficits. To them, civil disobedience can serve as a means to achieve a nearly just liberal democratic society. There are also other conceptions. Michael Walzer, for example, has argued that civil disobedience can be used in an attempt to democratize corporations, and not just governments.


Together with my colleague Bernardo Caycedo, who works on the digitalization of civil disobedience, I wrote a chapter on how these theories, while providing a good starting point, often conflict with the so-called paradigm cases of civil disobedience. These are real world cases that inform our understanding of the concept. The paradigm cases are those of Martin Luther King Jr. and the US Civil Rights Movement, and Mahatma Gandhi and the Indian Independence Movement. The civil disobedience that was used by both of these movements may appear to adhere to the criterion that Rawls put forth. However, it would be difficult to characterize Imperial India and segregated America as nearly just societies. Moreover, both King and Gandhi saw civil disobedience as having revolutionary potential. It was not enough to only try to change specific laws and policies, society needed to change far more drastically. It is within these axes of tension between theory and reality that I began my research. 


As an Indian American, I feel very connected with the issues that the paradigm cases fought for: racial equality, justice, resistance to colonial occupation and exploitation, dignity for all people regardless of the color of their skin or their origins, the right to be free. At the same time, the theories of civil disobedience that attempt to make sense of these movements feel very far removed from any reality that I, or my family and friends have experienced. I wondered if it made a difference that many of the theorists themselves did not necessarily know how it felt to be dehumanized because of the color of your skin, or your gender, or your status as an immigrant. 


For most of my life, whether in school or in the workplace, I always felt I was being spoken to instead of having a conversation with the authority figures in the room. I quickly became accustomed to the format of having a white individual of authority telling me how I experience the world and how, if I follow their “objective” rules, I can contribute to making the world a better place. This setup never felt comfortable, but it was all I had ever known. My parents told me to never talk back to or question these authority figures because I simply did not have the privilege to. 


When I began my PhD in the Philosophy Department at the University of Amsterdam, I was still tied to that format. I felt like an imposter, unable to fully articulate the type of theoretical disobedience I wanted to develop. The first couple of years I focused on learning and growing, until I finally decided that I had every right to also have a conversation with the theorists that I both revered and feared. I wanted my thesis to be one that could rethink civil disobedience using a lens that combines feminist, migration, postcolonial and critical race theories. What would happen if we took these perspectives into account when we rethink the concept?


To rethink civil disobedience through this lens, I am choosing to look at cases such as undocumented migration and contemporary movements that protest against racism and sexism. How do we make sense of movements such as Sans Papiers, We Are Here and No Borders? Do we simply neglect these movements because the agents in them are not legal citizens? How do we make sense of Black Lives Matter as both a continuation and break from the US Civil Rights movement of the 1960s? What does feminist disobedience look like in a globalized context? How do we situate Pussy Riot, or the women-only Umoja village in Kenya as examples of new types of feminist disobedience that seek new platforms and carve out their own spaces as forms of disobedience? In light of these cases, which continue to push important dialogue, what happens to the notion of civility? What makes disobedience civil? Is it only the legal status of a person, or whether their behaviour is in line with the civility that Rawls’ theory demands? 


As I sat in my classroom in 2003, I felt as though my feet were glued to the ground. I felt that there was no way I could stand up in the middle of class and simply walk out. What would the teacher think? Would I get in trouble? But I was tired of being spoken to, of being made to feel as though my voice did not matter. Now, almost 16 years later, I still struggle with those same feelings. But I know that, to fight the oppression felt by women, people of color and migrants around the world, we need theories that represent these experiences. So, to write my PhD thesis, I feel as though once again, I have to break the rules.