Book Note: Erin Pineda, Seeing Like an Activist

by Chris Bertram on June 22, 2022

I’ve just finished Erin Pineda’s Seeing Like an Activist: Civil Disobedience and the Civil Rights Movement (Oxford University Press, 2021), and it is a very welcome addition to the literature on both civil disobedience and the history of the US civil rights movement that anyone interested in either topic should read. Pineda is keen to push back against a particular liberal constitutionalist theory of civil disobedience, associated with Bedau and Rawls that purports to draw on the US civil rights movement but which, according to her, ends up both falsifying the history and provides succour to a narrative about civil rights that is used to discipline subsequent movements (such as Black Lives Matter) as failing to live up to the standards set by the activists of the 1960s. That narrative and theory also supports what we might call a form of soft white supremacy, according to which a nearly-just republic composed largely of white citizens was already in place and the task of civil disobedience was to communicate the anomalous exclusion of black Americans from the polity, so that white citizens, apprised of this injustice and stricken by conscience, would act to rectify things.

This standard liberal narrative around civil disobedience has fidelity to law and an acknowledgement of the basic justice and legitimacy of the established order at its heart. The task of civil disobedients on this view is to act non-coercively and non-violently but to break the law (a bit) only to raise the awareness of citizens considered as fellows who are thought of not as themselves implicated in the injustice but as basically good people who would act if only they knew. The civil disobedient on this view submits willingly, even eagerly, to punishment in order to testify to injustice whilst also accepting the shared framework of law. The tacit framework here is also a nationalist one (or at least a statist one) of shared co-operation among fellows who want to establish a just order on national territory together.
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