Humor as Disobedience

The class today was on the use of humor in political protest. Last week we discussed the fundamentals of civil disobedience and this week the students presented different examples of the uses of humor.

So the basics of disobedience are usually described as having different components to differentiate them from “just” lawlessness. For example H. A. Bedau argued in Civil Disobedience in Focus that in order for disobedience to be legitimate it should be

“committed openly…non-violently…and conscientiously…within the framework of the rule of law…with the intention of frustrating or protesting some law, policy or decision…of the government.”

As the examples of humor show, they fail many of these components and do not pass as civil disobedience. In most cases they are either not breaking any rule, regulation, policy, or social norm and in other cases they are not protesting the ruling authority or government.

However, the examples demonstrate the complexity of society by realizing that it is not only the government that regulates and that disobedience need not only be the breaking of rules.

The presentations today included The Pink Chaddi Campaign where Indian women sent pink underwear to the leader of an orthodox Hindu group to protest it’s misogynistic worldview. The De Grote Donor Show ashocking critique of popular culture intended to raise awareness about organ donation. The John Howard Ladies Auxiliary Club, a group of performance actors who adopted characters parodying 1950s Australian housewives and claimed to be the Prime Minister’s fan club. They would use his own conservatism against him in their parodies.

In The Snatchel Project the goal is: “Let’s make a uterus or VJJ* for each male rep in congress! If they have their own, they can leave ours alone!”. Participants knit or crochet female reproductive organs and send them to legislators. The Barbie Liberation Organization hacked talking Barbie and G.I. Joe dolls and switched their recorded messages. This would make Barbie say “vengeance is mine” while G.I. Joe would exclaim that “The beach is the place for summer.” The goal was to show that gender stereotypes are just that – stereotypes.

The sheer variation of these activist campaigns ensured that we had interesting and lively discussions ranging from fears connected with organ donation to misogyny in Australia. A lively class indeed.

An interesting aspect of looking at these studies was to refer them back to the theories. Where they political actions since they were aimed at non-political players? Where they disobedience when they were not breaking any rules? What we could see was that the activists (even if they may not all have defined themselves as such) set about non-conforming to social norms and protesting the message of a dominant player.

Disobedience Technology: Notes on a lecture

This lecture had the goal of introducing theories and methodologies behind civil disobedience in order to give the class the tools to identify legitimate acts of civil disobedience compared to lawlessness.

We began with the example of Socrates whose principled stand was that the law must be obeyed. In Plato’s text Crito we find Socrates in jail awaiting execution. His friends argue that he should escape.

But Socrates argues that the Laws exist as one entity, to break one would be to break them all. He cannot chose to obey the rules that suit him and disregard those which he doesn’t approve of.

The citizen is bound to the Laws like a child is bound to a parent, and so to go against the Laws would be like striking a parent. Rather than simply break the Laws and escape, Socrates should try to persuade the Laws to let him go. These Laws present the citizen’s duty to them in the form of a kind of social contract. By choosing to live in Athens, a citizen is implicitly endorsing the Laws, and is willing to abide by them. (Wikipedia)

This principled stand cost Socrates his life. However, most proponents of civil disobedience argue that there must be a way of following some rules while disobeying others. This disobedience must find legitimacy in other sources.

Greek mythology dealt with this issue in the story of Antigone where at one stage after a battle King Creon decreed that the dead were not to be buried. Antigone defied the law and buried her brother. She knew of the law and defied it knowingly arguing that she was bound by a superior divine law.

Continuing on this theme we looked at some of the classics of disobedience. Thoreau’s arguments that we are sometimes obliged to defy the government, Gandhi’s belief that we have a duty to disobey the unjust leader (and the example of the salt march), and Martin Luther King’s words that an unjust law is against God’s law.

“For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’…We must come to see…that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’…One may well ask, ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust…One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” (King Letter from Birmingham Jail)

These positions all argue that there is a higher moral authority that would make it legitimate to disobey rules. Indeed, King underscores that disobedience in such cases is a moral responsibility.

The argument against disobedience remains in the area of the social contract and the question about who could legitimately argue for the rules to be held or broken? In his Theory of Justice, John Rawles agreed that that there are situations where laws should not be followed and attempts to prevent “simple” lawlessness by stressing that disobedience is:

…a public, nonviolent, conscientious yet political act contrary to the law usually done with the aim of bringing about a change in the law or policies of the government.

H. A. Bedau argued in Civil Disobedience in Focus that in order for disobedience to be legitimate it should be

“committed openly…non-violently…and conscientiously…within the framework of the rule of law…with the intention of frustrating or protesting some law, policy or decision…of the government.”

While Peter Singer stressed

…if the aim of disobedience is to present a case to the public, then only such disobedience as is necessary to present this case is justified…if disobedience for publicity purposes is to be compatible with fair compromise, it must be non-violent.

These positions can be summed up with the idea that certain acts of disobedience are necessary in order to bring a minority position to the attention of the majority. However, in order to maintain its legitimacy, acts of disobedience must be carried out openly, non-violently, purposely, aimed at a specific rule or policy, by people prepared to accept the consequences.

Despite this, there are still critiques aimed at groups that attempt to disrupt via acts of civil disobedience. Often the arguments against disobedience are:

  • CD is not defensible in a democracy as the social contract is established and maintained by the people for the people.
  • CD is illegitimate as it subverts the equality embedded in the democratic process itself.
  • CD can only be acceptable if ALL other (democratic) methods have been exhausted

These critiques are easily enough met if we look at the American civil rights movement. The activists chose not to entrust the democratic process since the process is an endless one and does not necessarily promote change, but can be used to re-enforce established ideas. As King writes: ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.’ The outlook for social change, brought about from within the system was bleak. By challenging the rules it became more and more clear to the majority that the rules were harmful and needed to be changed.

We then spoke of moving disobedience online. Discussing the ways in which technology can be used to support activism. At the same time our technology use has also created a system in which our activism has been trivialised and subverted. Social media is efficiently used to promote and spread information about injustice. However, social media is also used to trivialize political acts. We click on LIKE icons, re-Tweet links, and share videos but what does it all mean?

Is this Postman‘s dystopia (Amusing ourselves to Death) in action?

The slides

Sports, Politics and Resistance

Tommie Smith was the winner of the 200-meter dash at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico. His teammate John Carlos came third.


“The two American athletes received their medals shoeless, but wearing black socks, to represent black poverty…” Both the americans and the silver medalist wore Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) badges. “Carlos had forgotten his black gloves, but Norman suggested that they share Smith’s pair, with Smith wearing the right glove and Carlos the left. When “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, Smith and Carlos delivered the salute with heads bowed, a gesture which became front page news around the world. As they left the podium they were booed by the crowd.” Wikipedia

This is a classic image in symbolic resistance which has been an inspiration to all those who struggle.

The coming Chinese Olympics have already been the target of political campaigns. The Chinese civil rights record is a natural target for acts of civil disobedience – whether symbolic or not.

In order to prevent any such things the British Olympic chiefs are going to force athletes to sign a contract promising not to speak out about China’s appalling human rights record – or face being banned from traveling to Beijing. (Daily Mail)

OK, so maybe there cannot be any official positions taken from the participating countries but to prevent individuals from protesting is going to far. The Chinese naturally see the Olympics as a perfect opportunity to present their position and of course this has not gone unopposed – for example AOL video, RSF, and Yahoo.

Resistance Technology Seminar

On Thursday next week (14/2) I will be holding a seminar on technology and resistance. The goal of this seminar is to develop my material which will be included as a book chapter in an upcoming work. Here is an abstract:

The purpose of this chapter is to look at the ways in which technology can be used in civil disobedience. The chapter will analyze the legal weaknesses faced by those wishing to conduct acts of civil disobedience using the Internet as a communications infrastructure. This approach is often referred to as functional equivalence and this chapter will address the following questions. What is functional equivalence? What obstacles are faced by disobedience online? Is the Internet failing as an infrastructure of democratic disobedience?

The background material for the seminar is available here. It is based upon my thesis which is available online from here.

Time: 15.15-17.00 (we usually go get a beer afterwards)
Place: the Annedalsseminariet, Konstepidemins väg 2, room 325

About time too…

Via the Resistance Studies blog:

The Alabama Legislature on Monday approved a bill that would pardon Rosa Parks, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists convicted of violating Jim Crow laws in the state. During the â??second Civil Warâ?? in the 1950s and 1960s against desegregation, thousands of African-Americans and white people were arrested while standing up for freedom.

The protesters were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct, criminal trespass, inciting riots, loitering and more, as they peacefully marched, staged sit-ins and protested to bring an end to the Southâ??s oppressive Jim Crow laws.

For exercising their rights as American citizens, they unjustly ended up with criminal records.

Recently, some Southern states, including Tennessee and Alabama, have moved to offer pardons to those convicted of acts of civil disobedience during the civil rights movement.

The House and Senate this week passed the Rosa Parks Act, named after the mother of the civil rights movement that would grant pardons to individuals who sought them.

The full text of the legislation is here:

About time too…

Back in Sweden

Just returned from the London trip which went very well. I gave two lectures and a seminar at the London School of Economics. The first and second (same lecture on two different days) was on Internet Civil Disobedience. The focus was on the use of Internet technology in acts of civil disobedience with a focus on  denial of service attacks. The seminar was on the Democratic Effects of Attempts to Regulate Internet Technology – this is basically my thesis work and the discussion is on the negative effects that attempts to regulate the Internet have on democratic participation via the Internet. Both lectures and the seminar went very well.

The rest of the time was spent both in meetings and in a well deserved relaxation. As usual London offered the opportunity for lots of interesting new additions to my reading list. Besides the two mentioned earlier (Peter Singerâ??s One World: The ethics of globalization and a book edited by Roth, Worden and Bernstein called Torture: Does it make us safer? Is it ever OK? A Human Rights Perspective). I came across John Pilger Freedom Next Time (a fantastic book I have already read half of it – it is a wake up call for anyone who wants to see the way in which mainstream media stifles important stories relevant to human rights.

Insurrection: Citizen Challenges to Corporate Power (by Kevin Danaher and Jason Mark), From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization (Benjamin Shepard and Ronald Hayduk Eds) and Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (James C. Scott) are three books which are highly relevant to my resistance work.

The list is nicely rounded up by Peer-to-Peer: Harnessing the Power of Disruptive Technologies (Andy Oram editor) and Computer Ethics and Professional Responsibility (edited by Terrell Ward Bynum and Simon Rogerson).

To me this is a very exciting list of books the only problem is to find the time they deserve to be able to read the properly. To me book shopping in London is not really about the large and wonderful bookstores that contain everything. I tend to get lost among so many books, become indecisive and leave empty handed. I much prefer the eclectic mix to be found in good second hand or remainder bookstores.  These also have the additional benefit of being really cheap. The most expensive among this list was Pilger’s book which cost only 8 pounds for a new hardback.


It’s brilliant to be in London again. I made it from Heathrow to the lecture hall with just a few minutes delay. The lecture of the day was Civil Disobedience Online and I think it went down well. Now I shall go and check into the hotel and spend the day in tourism mode. Tomorrow is more lecturing both a repeat on today and then a seminar on my thesis.

It’s almost too much I don’t know what to do first. But the list includes pub, beer, food, shopping, museum (British, National Portrait), British library, bookshops, bookshops and bookshops. Actually the first thing is to check into the hotel and have a shower. Too early in the morning and too little sleep, followed by travel and then two hours lecturing have overpowered my deodorant.

This is academic travel at its best! The only drawback is that I need to leave my free wifi access to go to the hotel.

A Plan

My research has been driven by two things. First I am, and want to be, an academic. This makes me interested in theories, methods and attempting to explore and explain the things I see around me. The second part of my driving force is my passion for what I do. I cannot work unless I feel what I do is important and may eventually bring about positive change. With this I do not mean a passion for academia but a passion for the subject matter.

This latter thing something that many people have pointed out during my thesis defence and the presentations I give. I secretly (not any more?) have difficulty with those who see their research as just another job. I donâ??t mean that they do lesser work â?? they do not. But I donâ??t understand where they find the energy to do things without passion.

Plan of the Parthenon

This leads to the point of my announcement. I know what I want to do with the next part of my career life. I aim to continue working under the umbrella of digital rights and democracy, with a particular focus on the actions and perspectives of users.

As a part of this I have two major projects underway, both in collaboration with smart and exciting people. The first is the development of a base for Free Software research and activity at the IT-University of Göteborg. The second is the development of the Resistance Studies Network at the School of Global Studies. These two are both faculties at the University of Göteborg.

At the FSF I hope to develop my understanding of legal issues and technical limitations. While at the RSN I intend to focus on digital civil disobedience. These are both topics which I had in my thesis â?? so itâ??s more in depth work rather than breaking new ground personally.

Right now both these projects are in the planning phases and will result in lots of work. So I will keep you all informed as it progresses.

It nice to have a plan, so now you knowâ?¦

Oh, and I have a few odd morbid side-projects, not to mention this blog, which I fully intend to persue but they cannot become mainstream to my work…yet.

Call for Copyright Activists

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary define the word Extortion as obtaining (as money) from a person by force, intimidation, or undue or unlawful use of authority or power.

In order for musicians to get paid copyright collectives began to appear in the 19th century. These collecting societies were formed to ensure that those who create copyrighted material are able to collect the money they are due. In its simplest form the member musician hands over control of his/her economic rights to the collecting society. The collecting society then has the mandate to collect the dues. Once collected these funds are dispersed among the members.

In most (at least European) countries the collecting societies have established themselves as a central part of the socio-economic system. They are powerful interest groups which ensure that they (and in extention their members) are catered to by the political-legal system. By entering into agreements with trade organisations the collecting societies now have established the right to collect money from all businesses that play music, show tv etc to their customers.

Rasmus at Copyriot has written an interesting piece on the way in which collecting societies manage to collect money. In Sweden the most active collecting societies are SAMI and STIM which are able to collect money for any music played in places of business where customers gather.

So large everything from: hotels with music in the lifts, small pizzerias whose music annoys you while you wait for your delivery, hairdressers, businesses that play cheesy music while you are on hold and cafés with music nobody listens to. They are all required to pay to the collecting societies.

Rasmus even relates an event where a policeman at a demonstration in Germany wrote down all the songs played and sent the list to the German collecting societies who promptly sent the organiser a bill. Swedish law would work in the same way. The policemanâ??s superior stated that the policeman had gone too far but the bill still has to be paid. (link to story in German).
The Spanish Case

In 2005 the main Spanish collecting society (Sociedad General de Autores y Editores – SGAE) â?? sued Ricardo Andrés Utrera Fernández, the owner of Metropol, a disco bar located in in Badajoz for not paying SGAEâ??s license fee of 4.816,74 â?¬ for the period from November 2002 to August 2005 for the public performance of music.

On February 17th, 2006, the Lower Court number six of Badajoz, a city in Extremadura, Spain, rejected the collecting societyâ??s claims because the owner of the bar proved that the music he was using was not managed by the society. The music performed in the bar was licensed under CC licenses that allows that public display since the authors have already granted those rights. Specifically, the judge said:

â??The author possesses some moral and economic rights on his creation. And the owner of these rights, he can manage them as he considers appropriate, being able to yield the free use, or hand it over partially. “Creative Commons” licenses are different classes of authorizations that the holder of his work gives for a more or less free or no cost use of it. They exist as â?¦ different classes of licenses of this type â?¦ they allow third parties to be able to use music freely and without cost with greater or minor extension; and in some of these licenses, specific uses require the payment of royalties. The defendant proves that he makes use of music that is handled by their authors through these Creative Commons licenses.â?? (quote from CC)

The full text of the decision (in Spanish) is available here. The Spanish case sets a new precedent in that it confirms that the collecting societies can only collect if the music played is made by members of collecting societies.

Copyright Activists Needed
What needs to be done? Hairdressers and café owners are probably not the most tech or Internet savvy. So to help them the basic idea is to set up a website filled with CC licensed music and easy howto instructions on how to use the music either online or by downloading and creating CDâ??s.

Aside from music arranged by genre, technical information on how to use it, the site should include legal information explaining why the users will no longer have to pay money to the collecting societies.

This copyright civil disobedience could potentially become the most important method for affecting change in the copyright system since it attacks the purse of the collecting society. In addition to this the scheme is legal. This last point does not make it less civil disobedience since the organisation of the site is a form of protest against the extortionary powers which the collecting societies have collected.