"Civilized Disobedience" - Bringing it All Together
In his speech "Civilized Disobedience," first given in 1968 at SUNY Geneseo at the opening convocation, Walter Harding combined the words of Thoreau to the political climate of that fateful year in one dissertation to the student body. Within the speech, he notes that Thoreau himself, scholar and transcendentalist, was the author to coin the term "civil disobedience." In 1968, a year of revolution in Geneseo and across the globe, this term had become a buzzword of sorts, capable of enabling change in across many social movements from Civil Rights to Women's Liberation. Martin Luther King himself, Harding points out, had used Thoreau's "Resistance to Civil Government," within which the term appeared, to build a solid foundation for activists who longed to bring down segregation and allow African Americans in the southern states to increase their civil rights as citizens. Referencing Thoreau's hatred of slavery and imprisonment for refusing to pay a poll tax to a racist political system, Harding pulled together the strings of a long-winded author renowned for living in the woods by himself, and students who wanted desperately to make a change within their community.
Harding further calls upon the insights of Thoreau, saying that while civil disobedience is certainly better than violence, it is not a foolproof system, and can come with consequences. A true scholar of the humanities, Harding evokes images of the Danes all wearing yellow stars to make Jews indistinguishable to the Nazis, while noting that those seen wearing the stars were very often senselessly shot. In giving this example, Harding highlights that the art of civil disobedience should be used sparingly and only against matters of the utmost importance, when all other methods of reform have been thwarted: namely, for use against laws the encroach upon civil liberties or basic human rights. Giving a list of 8 checkpoints for practicing "civilized disobedience," he underscores that it must be practised for moral purposes, and not simply for the sake of being part of a protest-happy culture. He notes that to Thoreau, abusing civil disobedience in this way would be more harmful than the most violent war: a poignant lesson to students who sometimes tend to follow what is popular at the time for the sake of inclusion. Ultimately, he notes the deliberate difference, for Thoreau and himself, between, "civil" and "civilized" disobedience, and that if the cause is good enough, one "must have the courage of [their] convictions to practice [their] disobedience civilly."
Within the SUNY Geneseo Lamron, students wrote upon and summarized Harding’s speech. While the newspaper is usually a format through which students can vent their opinions, this particularly article provides more of a summary of the event, and what Harding said. It serves as an example of how many influential members of the administration, including students, were present to watch this speech. The event serves as an example of Thoreau, Harding, and the Geneseo Community coming together to discuss a common theme of Civil Disobedience for the good of the global community.