Civil disobedience is almost akin to a taboo in our society, yet in its pure form – as taught by Thoreau and practiced by Gandhi – it is harmful to no-one. For my assignment I chose to break the social consensus that it is a good idea to obey authority; rather, it is wiser to question its shortcomings. To do so, I talked to people and raised questions with them. It was not my intention to incite law breaking, only to encourage freethinking. This was an informal norm to break, as I was no longer following the shared understandings I have with strangers.
I shed the ‘etiquette’ I had been socialised with in favour of an ‘alien’ ideology. In practical terms this meant I was no longer taking any explanations for granted, an attitude firmly opposed to the conservatism I was expected to conform to. My plan was not to gauge others’ attitudes by asking them to talk to me; the potential audience is limited, as many people do not like being stopped in the street. There is also the danger of the ‘Hawthorne effect’ – if subjects are aware they are being tested their responses will be altered.
Instead I chose a public place – Broad St, Reading – to begin a loud discussion on law with a friend. At first passers by just ignored us, keeping their distance. Many gave us cautious looks, but none stopped to watch or talk to us until a pair of middle-aged men informed us we were ‘disturbing the peace’. I kept up my act, asking why it should be considered wrong to question the law, and pointing out that we live in a ‘culture of silence’ already. They exhibited verbal disapproval, disagreeing with all my arguments.
Soon, however, they declined to interact any further and left. At this point, a businessman who had been observing began to object to what I had said. He held that I was lucky to live under a democracy, and that it was the best form of government. I pointed out that subjectivism and ethnocentrism spring from such confidence. He argued that the law had to be upheld, and I replied that it would be wiser, in the words of Thoreau, that “when men are ready” they should have rules based on conscience, and a government which “governs not at all.
At this point he showed signs of disdain and left. This is an example of how individuals’ ideas may be influenced by their achieved status. Soon afterwards, I passed a Socialist Worker stall, where I found my views accepted and supported. In an attempt to see what difference in reactions there would be if I were to dress the part, I donned a Che Guevara T-shirt and defaced Nike trainers, with a communist-made badge bearing the hammer and sickle.
On the way to the next public place, Reading’s Forbury Gardens, I attracted several ‘funny looks’; it was apparent my new dress was not what people expected to see. When in the Gardens, my friend and I started a new discussion. Before long, small groups of people were watching us. The first person to voice an interest voiced her approval of my arguments against authority, although her opinions were of an individual nature, such as supporting the legalisation of marijuana. She appeared relaxed and not at all confrontational like the person I spoke to next.
He was a young man who made his disapproval clear verbally and in body language, alternately crossing his arms and gesturing as he spoke. He was of the opinion that only ‘scum’ want to disobey the law, and that deviants are bad by nature. He became increasingly agitated, and not wanting to risk an argument, I told him I was conducting an investigation and he visibly relaxed, and became receptive to my perspective on the nature/nurture debate. Upon leaving the Gardens, two punk rockers gave the ‘thumbs up’ to my T-shirt and voiced their support.
This was a demonstration of how small communities refuse to follow social norms; my attitudes would have been met with little opposition, and on the contrary would perhaps have been encouraged, in a rock venue. In the interactions, the symbols and sanctions displayed by the subjects in question demonstrate how well society’s values had been internalised in them, an example of Bourdieu’s ‘Cultural Reproduction’. People generally acted on these traditions; their reactions were mostly not individual or especially contextualised.
Here, we have an example of Marx’s ‘false consciousness’ – people have been infused with an ideology. They are ‘socially made’, in the language of Durkheim. The value held by nearly all the people I encountered was one of acceptance of and respect for legitimate authority, to the point where it is considered useful enough to be worth defending. It appears this social norm is so deeply ingrained in the collective mind of society that it would need a lot of work to break down, if it could ever be done.