Defending Kim Davis is a questionable act. Ever since she made national headlines in September for refusing to issue marriage licenses — to any couple — because she believed the sanctity of marriage had been ruined by the ruling in favor of gay marriage, this county clerk from Kentucky has been made a caricature: a hero for few and the paradigm of prejudice for many liberals.
I personally believe nothing redeems a person who invalidates other people’s lives, but I do want to defend one thing Kim Davis did: Not her plea for a religious exemption, but that she employed civil disobedience to protest.
Refusing to issue marriage licenses was, in its own right, an act of civil disobedience. It is easy to agree with civil disobedience in retrospect — when thinking about the Civil Rights Movement or India’s fight for freedom — but when it disrupts our lives, we turn a critical eye to it. When protests raged in Ferguson, President Barack Obama stood in front of a nation and asked for “productive” responses to generations of discrimination and violence — and that isn’t unreasonable.
The use of violence is hard to defend, but that wasn’t the only form of protest under attack. What was implicit in his statement was the call for protesters to obey laws, even those laws that they believed were discriminatory in nature or execution. In refusing to do that, Ferguson started a movement that wasn’t meek, that couldn’t be ignored. It would be ideal if all change could come through peaceful dialogue in safe settings, except that hasn’t worked for decades — what works is disruptive protest. And that is because laws are designed to keep unrest minimal and quiet — and silence tends to help the oppressor and not the oppressed.
When years of trying to achieve the American Dream ended in segregated housing and police brutality, and when so many bodies have been laid down, with nobody to hear their cry — why should protest be productive or compliant, when the reality so many people face is disruptive and violent?
It is easy to not protest at all — to leave our complex hierarchies and systems unchallenged instead of engaging in dangerous revolutions. Especially in a bureaucracy, where you’re just passing along papers, it feels intuitive to relegate the responsibility for your actions to someone — something — else. But the huge systems that we are a part of mean we are capable of acting, with or without thinking, and effecting large change.
That contradiction — of being a part of a large body and yet feeling no responsibility for its crimes — was at the heart of the Nuremberg Trials. Nowhere else has this contradiction been so publicly considered — that people can be doing their ordinary jobs, and through that unthinking, banal cruelty, orchestrate an evil that cannot be forgiven.
“The Yuppie Nuremberg defense,” that we’re just trying to pay the mortgage, is the defense most people use — and justifiably, because standing apart is enormously difficult. Sometimes, the protest is buried, brushed aside, inconsequential. But as Shonda Rhimes said, countless people have to hit a glass ceiling before it can crack — and many more before it can shatter.
In writing about the Nuremberg trials, the political theorist Hannah Arendt proposed something simple: “To think what we are doing.” But moreover, to act on it — to realize the consequences of our day-to-day labor and consumption. To think and to act requires citizens to rise above being a cog in the machine; and that means refusing to issue licenses if the law changes to what you consider unjust, because it is your civil duty.
There is a distinction between agreeing with someone’s beliefs and acknowledging that they have the right to that opinion. And yet the more we care about an issue, the harder it is to let people have views we consider preposterous. That response is not irrational or wrong — it is just a function of how our empathy works. But we have to make an effort to recognize that sometimes our emotions shouldn’t guide our actions.
The fundamental condition of politics is that it goes on among plural human beings, each of whom can act and start something new (Hannah Arendt). That condition is not an inconvenience to our development — it is the hope for it, and we have to recognize it as such.
Leagues separate the Nuremberg trials from Ferguson or Kim Davis, but what ties them together is that in each case, people were suffering while other stumbled around what to call justice. Yet, that skirmish is vital — and for that debate to happen, we need to see divisive issues as worthy of disruptive protest, especially in the form of civil disobedience, even when it clashes with our personal beliefs.
The point is not to have such an open mind that we are left unable to defend what we believe in — the point is to defend your beliefs — when they are well-informed — fiercely, and yet not take away other people’s right to advocate just as loudly.
We can just ask Kim Davis to do her job — and say she broke her oath to office and that therein lies her crime. But we shouldn’t. Kim Davis may be wrong about several things, but the one thing she did right, that most of us don’t, is seeing her job as more than stamping a paper — and seeing it as a part of her moral duty.
Our society has entangled justice with economics and is more dependent on bureaucracy now than ever before — and when an injustice is done, justice sometimes can only come from making the machine screech to a halt. Sometimes that means someone like Kim Davis makes the news, but sometimes it means a boy is killed and a highway is blocked and a whole nation stops to hear: BLACK LIVES MATTER.
Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu.