Dis-civil Obedience

by Attila Gyenis 

Webster’s New World Dictionary:

Civil - adj. [see civic] 1. of a citizen or citizens  2. of a community of citizens  3. civilized  4. polite  5. not military or religious

Dis - prefix. separation, negation, reversal



The message we have failed to communicate is this– “We are concerned about the well-being of our society, our environment, our planet, and our future!” Our political and corporate leaders have failed to hear the message, or are intentionally avoiding the message as it interferes with their self-serving acts of self-gratification regardless of who gets hurt. Unfortunately, as a society, we have failed to come together to act as a united voice against the injustices that are carried out in our name.

And how do we fail to communicate these concerns? I'm not talking about those people who don't see the injustices or don't care about the harm they are causing other people as long as they get what they want. I'm talking about people who are quietly unhappy on the inside because they see the injustices, but still don't voice their concerns because they don't want to rock the boat. In our modern society it is considered good manners to be obedient, even to an obviously flawed and unjust system.

Yes, there are many individuals and groups who recognize that our society acts in a dis-civil way. They understand that the current social and economic system is detrimental to the well-being of ourselves and the planet we share. They see unsustainable timber, fishing, and oil drilling practices. They see a war being fought based on fabricated threats, while the real causes of terrorism don’t get addressed. They are concerned about genetically modified foods, a voting system that cannot guarantee that the vote is being accurately counted, and an increasing military presence in our civilian life. They see a shrinking supply of fresh water and an increasing amount of toxic waste. They see the tax structure unfairly benefiting the people who need it least, and a cut in health care programs for the people who need it most. They see a host of critical issues that are not being addressed and it concerns them.


One would think that people would be in an uproar, that we would all be outraged. But we aren’t. We are as quiet as a mouse in a cheese factory. And that is what must change. We cannot allow injustices to continue unchallenged. The responsibility for change rests in all of our hands.

If you believe that the current social and economic systems are adversely affecting society and you are quietly going along, then you are practicing “dis-civil obedience.” You are being obedient to a dis-civil process. The process is dis-civil because it goes against the common good of society (civilization).

For all practical purposes, most people keep these concerns to themselves. Complaining to your neighbor or local bartender doesn’t count. Instead, we wash our cars, worry about the right conditioner for our hair, and buy wide-screen TVs for our oversized houses. Of course, we do deal with a host of other concerns that distract us - illnesses, children, work, death, money, but that cannot be an excuse to ignore the larger injustices. We don’t effectively  communicate our concerns to anyone who could possibly act on it. In fact, we may end up contributing to the very problems that we are concerned about, whether it is what we do for a living, or the way we live our lives (working for a defense contractor, not recycling, not buying organic foods).


Why do we fail to voice these concerns? We want to be polite. We don’t want to become identified as troublemakers, radicals, or worse, protesters. We don’t want to practice ‘civil disobedience’ and challenge the system. We have been brought up to believe that if we challenge the system we are being disobedient, uncivil. Sometimes we don’t want to disrupt the process for fear of being embarrassed.  We want people to think that we respect the system because we are made to believe that it is the right thing to do. And maybe it is the right thing to do some of the time. But not all the time. And not if your inaction is causing harm.

Our failure to bring about a change is not necessarily all our own doing. We do have to be aware of the entities that are working hard to maintain the current dis-civil process. These entities benefit from the flawed process and have a vested interest in seeing the present flawed process continue. Their vested interest is this– $$$ money. Not jobs, not improving communities, and not about benefiting society. It is all about the money. If society occasionally seems to benefit from these profit-based activities, it is illusionary at best. These entities carry out actions and activities that goes against the best interests of society. They are the ones who cause our water and air to be polluted, our natural resources to be exhausted, going to war based on lies and deceit, and who are encouraging individuals to live at an unsustainable consumer level that the planet cannot provide for.

The individuals who seem the most civil, wearing ties and business suits, are in fact the ones who are initiating these dis-civil actions. Whether it is a government official speaking about the need to go to war; or a corporate CEO saying that they have to be responsible to their shareholders; these are the individuals who are being dis-civil when they make a decision that goes against the well-being of society. And when any of us quietly acquiesce to those decisions and actions, we are practicing “dis-civil obedience.”


I am making an assumption that the planet is indeed in a crisis situation. Am I being an alarmist? When should you sound the alarm? When the pot is filled with water? When the pot is put on the stove? When the stove is lit? When you are placed in the water? When the water starts getting hot? Or when you are cooked?

I have to be honest. I don’t know what the majority of the people believe in (witness the reselection of Bush Jr). I am always amazed at who gets elected (and reelected). Maybe we are not at a crossroads. Maybe everything will work out. Maybe everything is okay the way it is. Maybe we don’t have to be responsible for our own destiny because someone or some corporation will take care of us. Maybe wars, famine and poverty are not signs that our system that is failing.

Check off whichever statement you think is appropriate (you can chose more than one):

  •  If we educate people, they will make the correct choices.

  • Technology will always be able to fix anything that is damaged or destroyed, including the environment.

  • We need to shut down the current system and impose a new world order.

  • It makes no difference to me what happens, because my religion will take care of me in the afterlife.

  • We can make a change by working within the system.

  • We need to start living in a sustainable life style.

  • Everything is okay, there are no major problems.

  • We need to act as responsible stewards of the planet.

  • There are plenty of natural resources, and we will never run out no matter how quickly we use it.

Now that you have carefully selected your answers, realize that there are people who would pick answers completely opposite of the ones you picked.

Does it make a difference what the majority of the people want? Does society always do what the majority of the people want? Do the majority of the people always want the right thing? What does the 'right thing' mean? Is the right thing based on truth?


Truth by itself will rarely ever change society. It needs a voice. In fact, it needs many voices. There is power when a group of people get together, but you need a certain critical mass before change will occur. A single voice will not be heard (or can be easily silenced). Without the necessary critical mass asking for the necessary change, the status quo will continue.

And this is the point. When you fail to publicly voice your concern out of a fear of not wanting to be seen as “improper”, you are allowing a dis-civil action to occur. But more importantly, you are failing to allow the critical mass from being assembled and being heard. It requires every voice, including yours. If doing the right thing and speaking out embarrasses you, then you should consider the definition of embarrassment. Yes, it may be uncomfortable, but it is still the right thing to do.

If you think that everything will work out okay without your voice, I’m sorry to inform you that you are wrong. Things are not working out for us or our planet. It may not even work with your voice if the next person is not willing to use their voice. Let’s be clear about it. It will not work without your voice.

It is even possible that the majority of the people are quietly concerned about these issues (though the percentage is probably a lot smaller then that). Quiet desperation is not enough. Collective actions are required. Voices need to be heard. People need to be seen.

If you want to communicate your concern, don’t be afraid of using your voice. It is necessary to do so if you want a better society. When a law is unjust, acting against it is a civil action. When a corporation is polluting our air and water, challenging it on all fronts is a civil action. When an uncivil action occurs, we should be outraged. Protesting against an illegal war based on lies and deceit is a moral necessity.

We should not allow an uncivil act to go unchallenged. You have permission if that is what you are waiting for. Start with 10 minutes a week. Find issues that are affecting you and write to your government official, a corporate official, a letter to the editor.  Attend a protest. Don’t wait for other people to change how they live before you change how you live.

Use your voice. This is too important for anybody to remain quiet. Don’t worry about being embarrassed or uncomfortable because you are protesting for something that you believe in. It is our political, economic and social process that is uncivil. They work against the interests of having a beneficial and healthy civilization. To protest against it is the civil thing to do. What you should be uncomfortable about is being quiet and doing nothing.

What we should be worried about is “dis-civil obedience.”


Peace and justice

© 2005 Attila Gyenis

** "What we have here is a failure to communicate" is a line from the movie Cool Hand Luke starring Paul Newman.

Those who give up essential liberties for temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

~Benjamin Franklin

Other Pages:

Not One More! - Not one more unnecessary death, not one more day. Stand up and be counted. Demand that your elected officials stand up and be counted. US out of Iraq.

Words Have Meaning - People have a responsibility to say what they mean, and mean what they say. To accomplish this, words cannot be allowed to change their meaning midstream.

How in the world is anybody still sitting on that fence? - A look at how anybody could still not realize that the president is lying about the war by Attila Gyenis (and inspired by Cindy Sheehan).


Hypocrites and Liars by Cindy Sheehan - Cindy Sheehan talking about why she stood along the road in Crawford, Texas, waiting to talk to the president. It inspired me to write the above essay.

Life is Beautiful - Another view of life in Iraq

Sustainable Consumption - We live on a planet with limited natural resources. We are consumers of natural resources. How do we achieve a sustainable society?  Is 'sustainable consumption' an oxymoron? [2004]





"It’s difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it." Sinclair Lewis

"The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." Bertrand Russell

Other Articles that may be of Interest:

Mr. Kerry on the Yellow Brick Road - If only Mr. Kerry had some courage to stand up against the Wicked Witch of the East. Beating Mr. Bush should have been a no-brainer. [ by Attila Gyenis 2004]

The American Dream? - What exactly is the American dream? We are at a crossroads and have to start making choices about which dream we want to follow. Who will make the choice, the community or a corporation? A look at the struggle in Humboldt County, CA, between community members and the Pacific Lumber/Maxxam corporation that  spent nearly a quarter of a million dollars into an attempt to recall the District Attorney in March of 2004. The recall attempt was not successful. But the struggle continues. [by Attila Gyenis 2004]

"Those who already enjoy democracy, liberty, and human rights, in particular, should not allow their own personal happiness to lull them into forgetting the many others who are still struggling against tyranny, slavery, and poverty; and all those who are suffering from unimaginable forms of oppression, exploitation, and massacres," Wei Jingsheng, Chinese Human Rights Advocate, and political prisoner in China for 15 years.

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