Program in Ethics and Public Affairs
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ABSTRACT: Many contemporary theorists and practitioners of disobedience have questioned whether civility and nonviolence ought to be requisite components of legitimate dissent. While sharing their skepticism of overly narrow, prescriptive formulations of a moral or legal right to disobedience, I consider broader practices of civility and explore their purpose and function in terms of the political logic of nonviolent protest. I do so by way of a historical and conceptual analysis of why and how Gandhi introduced civility into the theory and practice of nonviolent disobedience. The emphasis on civility in disobedience marks a significant departure from Thoreau’s understanding, in which the term “civil” designated the object of resistance (namely, civil government or the state) and not its character.
Gandhi began to insist on civility in nonviolent protest as a remedy to the violence that accompanied his first attempts at mass satyagraha in India (1919-1922). He diagnosed this violence as stemming in part from the unmasterable character of political action. Civility as a form of self-discipline was devised to manage and mitigate action’s inherent hazards. I will highlight two novel aspects of this formulation: the ways in which civility was to be formalized, performed, and dramatized in satyagraha and how such practices served to make protest more persuasive.
Karuna Mantena is Professor of Political Science at Columbia University and co-director of the International Conference for the Study of Political Thought (CSPT). She is the author of Alibis of Empire: Henry Maine and the Ends of Liberal Imperialism (2010), which analyzed the transformation of nineteenth-century British imperial ideology. She has recently published articles on Gandhi’s political realism, the nonviolence of Martin Luther King, and the theory and practice of nonviolence in the 20th century. She is currently finishing a book tentatively titled Gandhi and the Politics of Nonviolence.