Gandhi humbled an empire and sacrificed his life for his ideals; pressing "like" on a Facebook protest page does not quite measure up. My first televised essay of 2012 for TVOntario's The Agenda discusses the democratic imperative to stand up for justice, and the ethical imperative to do so in a meaningful way. The broadcast is available via streaming video through my YouTube Channel and via podcast through iTunes, as well as directly above. My original text is below.
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In any democracy worthy of the name, it is not merely the right, but the responsibility of every citizen to resist unjust laws.
In Canada - a nation that defines itself through the comparatively docile pursuit of peace, order, and good government - we have too often suffered from a national impulse to defer to authority. Yet, I believe Canadians would still agree that those who do the greatest good in the world are those who are least willing to yield before evil.
Mahatma Gandhi responded to colonial oppression through a massive campaign of civil disobedience, striking a non-violent blow that would lay low the largest empire in the history of civilisation. Rosa Parks refused the command to move to the back of the bus, with a quiet dignity that would sweep away American segregation laws. Vaclav Havel set his intellect and artistry against the bullets and barbed wire of Communism, and breathed life into the bloodless Velvet Revolution that would end two generations of bloody tyranny.
Each was a person of profound humility, but each found the courage to live out his or her convictions, and each had the strength to change the world by refusing to submit to injustice.
All three were vilified. All three were imprisoned. And this Monday’s anniversary of his assassination is a stark reminder that Gandhi paid for his non-violent ideals with a violent death.
The credibility, virility, and nobility of their struggles lay in their willingness to suffer the consequences from those their lives defied. It was their example more than their words that inspired hundreds of millions of others to follow where they led, creating irresistible movements for justice.
Today, the rise of online communications has enabled information to outpace distance and censorship, and made it far easier to create vast virtual communities of interest. At this moment, there are probably more self-described dissidents opining in chat rooms than have manned all the barricades in all of history.
But the very speed and ease with which modern protests can erupt, is frequently complemented by the speed and ease with which they disappear.
It takes little courage and still less personal investment to languidly press “like” at a Facebook page. When that is their full extent, such protests are nothing more than consequence-free, self-indulgent exercises in soothing the consciences of individuals unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to effect real change in the real world.
Although times have changed, the fundamental principles of civil resistance have remained timeless.
There is a contrast between making a scene, and making a difference. There is a choice between the comfort of self-righteous illusion, and the peril of self-sacrificing commitment. There is a hard journey between railing against unjust laws, and living out a life that models justice.
Fundamentally, everyone who aspires to be a person of conscience faces a deeply personal challenge: if we truly wish to change the world, are we prepared to begin by changing ourselves?