The Courage to Disobey

By Beth Roy

James Scott, one of my favorite social science authors, arrived in an unfamiliar town in Germany late one night. Embedded in a small crowd of fellow passengers, he came to a street bordering the station and stopped to wait for the traffic light to change from red to green. The group of pedestrians silently waited. And waited. And waited. James looked to the right: no traffic in sight. He looked to the left: a totally barren road. As he waited, he asked himself a forbidden question: “Why are we waiting?” Taking courage in hand, he stepped off the curb and crossed the road. Looking back, he saw the small crowd of pedestrians, gaze averted, still stoically stationary.

To disobey a rule takes courage. To do so publicly, to leave the crowd distinguishing yourself as someone who defies an unspoken consensus, takes even more courage. Whether people follow you across the street or not, you have broken two layered rules: obey traffic signals, and don’t think about any alternative to obeying traffic signals. Collective consent to a rule slides into collective consent to forget we have decided to obey that rule. To break the first rule is to induce consciousness of other rules onlookers have consented to obey and then forgotten they ever had a choice. That is revolutionary action. Stepping off that curb into the vacant street was more disruptive than immediately apparent.

As he walked on, James Scott coined a phrase that acknowledged the import of his behavior: “insurrectionary calisthenics”. If we don’t practice small acts of resistance to rules that are nonsensical, will we then be prepared to disobey unjust rules that cry out for disobedience? Civil disobedience is a method of collective protest. Unified with a crowd of fellow objectors, I am fully prepared to take the consequences. But individual disobedience is harder. Why are we so thoroughly socialized to concede our agency to rules and actions that we may abhor even while we consent to them? Mass acts of disobedience happen only occasionally. But opportunities for individual disobedience test our courage openly to declare our values daily.

I am an old white woman. Often in my long lifetime I’ve witnessed casual acts of disrespect by other white people toward people of color, by men toward women, by adults toward children, by humans toward other animals. Do I speak up? Will I draw animosity to myself? Will I embarrass the person who has transgressed? How do I do it without resorting to comparable hatefulness? Will the person harmed, thank or resent me for calling attention to a wrong done to them? All these fears reflect unspoken rules: be polite, don’t stand out, never reveal your feelings so deeply that you are angered. Compounded, these value-laden rules create a conflict averse culture. So we don’t speak, and our silence not only fails to support someone who has been hurt but also deprives onlookers of awareness of harm done. No one learns anything, and the person harmed adds one more injury to a lifetime of them. Insurrectionary calisthenics, on the other hand, suggests that we need to take those small steps if we are ever to learn how to craft more humane relationships, steps along the way to building an equitable culture. Practice makes perfect.

The more we speak out, the more comfortable it becomes. Scott’s calisthenics are truly about unlearning a collective silence that serves to buttress our unjust society. Training to obey starts early and continues with a vengeance. Have you heard yourself or someone else say to a child, “We don’t do that.” The child throws food off her highchair tray: “We eat our food; we don’t play with it.” That “we” is a powerful whip to enforce obedience. Most toddlers love to throw things from a height over and over again. Not only do they experience the power of altering physical reality, but they’re little Newtons, joyfully retesting the reality of gravity. To intervene saves grown-up backs from the repeated act of retrieval. But the injunction to stop contains multiple lessons. Neatness matters more than critical thinking. Adults are entitled to enforce their wishes on smaller people. There is a moral lesson behind the “we” in the sentence; it singles the child out. It suggests that everyone else knows and obeys the rule, and now this new human must conform or be ruled out of the collective “we”. Today’s adults rarely explicitly call a child “bad”, but we imply that moral judgment in manifold ways.

One might think the logical extension of my advocacy of disobedience is anarchy; I don’t mean to wander into a discussion of the pros and cons. Be assured that what I advocate is not willy-nilly defiance of every rule. When we look at the persistent causes of ills like racism, we roam back and forth between the interpersonal and the systemic. If every white person unlearned racism, our society would still suffer severe inequities in well-being among communities of different races. Intentional acts of discrimination ride the surface of inequities of income, housing, education, healthcare – and just about every other resource of society one can name. However determined we who enjoy the privileges of an unequal system might be to avoid participation in unjust systems, we cannot. Where we live, how we eat, where we get our food, how we care for our bodies: every banal act of daily living involves us in systems we may hate but cannot escape. 

To cross the road when the light is red does not transform the world. But Scott’s tongue-in-cheek concept of insurrectionary calisthenics implies a certain hopefulness. He does not claim that his departure from the curbside crowd in Germany was itself a revolutionary act. What he argues is that such small acts of defiance prepare us for the big ones, the ones that really will count toward changing the world. He suggests that we nurture our world-changing capabilities in small ways in order to be ready when the big ones present themselves, which implies that there will be a big one. George Floyd’s murder was one such moment. Repeated mass killings headline the newspaper as I write. When will these big moments build to an intensity that truly challenges injustice at its core?

We live in a society built on the unequal distribution of resources. Material things matter more than humanity. When money rules, the rules protect those who possess money. Society is also built on the consent of those who don’t. For the most part, the American state does not use raw violence to enforce laws – the exceptions being the killing of Black people by armed police and capital punishment. How distorted has that system of consent become when citizens themselves feel the need to carry weapons for protection or for the assertion of rights? To be armed in the time the Second Amendment was written was to encourage civilian militias to defend the autonomy of the new republic. What a different meaning it has in today’s world. 

On a recent trip through the hinterland, we needed courage to walk into a grocery store, side by side with men carrying handguns in hip-riding holsters. No police were present to “serve and protect”. Soon afterward, pointedly racial mass murder happened in a grocery store in Buffalo. All values in a stratified society are conditional. The amount of courage I needed to walk into a store beside customers’ showing arms is of lesser intensity than the courage it takes for a Black woman of my age to walk into a grocery store today in Buffalo. There are no absolute values when life-stakes are so varied. Scott’s injunction to practice insurrectionary calisthenics must be tailored to the risks incurred by people of different races, ages, genders, classes, abilities. Nonetheless, although moments of actual insurrection may be scarce, moments when opportunities present to interrupt hegemonic consent to unjust social arrangements occur often. Consider your risks and build your insurrectionary muscles when you can.

One last comment on the paradox of writing about the courage to disrupt in a journal about peace. No justice, no peace has become a familiar slogan. Translated into day-to-day choices and actions, however, it becomes a mantra to live by. Be judicious about when you step off that curb, but be prepared.



Beth Roy, PhD, mediates organizations and communities confronting challenges to diversity. She teaches workshops on ways to talk and listen across differing identities. Her published works include Some Trouble with Cows: Making Sense of Social Conflict and 41 Shots…and Counting: What Amado Diallo Teaches Us about Policing, Race, and Justice. She is a co-founder of the Practitioners Research and Scholarship Institute and co-edited the anthology Beyond Equity and Inclusion in Conflict Resolution: Recentering the Profession.