My heart was strangely warmed by a movie I just saw. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of this movie called “The Great Debaters”. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it to you as one of those that will stir within you a passion for truth and justice. There are few movies that capture the emotion and the zeal with which an entire community fights against racist oppression through the lives of a handful of people. But this is not just fiction. Far be it from me that I should recommend a fanciful decoration of the imagination as a definitive piece for discussion and deliberation. Ofcourse by saying this I do not mean fiction is inferior in any sense, as an art form. I have no right nor the credentials to pass such a judgement. All I say is that when you know what you’re listening to and reading about is true, the response it evokes is of a different nature. It is to this nature of yours that I intend to write to today.
I know what you must be thinking even as you dread the very thought of me going over the lines of the dialogues in the movie. You were caustic, I remember, in your reply, the last time I undertook this attempt at reviewing a movie for you. But I want to assure you that the purpose this time is not to review “The Great Debaters”, for I shall never do enough justice to its true measure. I only want to dwell upon a couple of lines that are used in one of the debates as they are powerful. The topic for the debate is “Civil disobedience is a moral weapon in the fight for justice”; The character is James Farmer Jr, a Methodist priest’s son, also an African American. This is from his final rebuttal. Responding to his opponent who says that nothing that erodes the rule of law could be moral, Farmer presents a stunning yet heart wrenching counterperspective. He recounts a first hand experience that their debating team goes through while driving through Texas, of a Negro being lynched right in front of their eyes. He talks of the fear and the shame that they felt and how no law in the land could prevent negroes from being subjected to such oppression every day in their lives. And in conclusion he says this, I quote Farmer now, “…But the Law did nothing, just left us wondering why. My opponent says ‘Nothing that erodes the rule of the law can be moral’. But there is no rule of law in the Jim Crow South.. not when negroes are denied housing, turned away from schools, hospitals and not when we are lynched. St Augustine said .. ‘An unjust law is no law at all’, which means I have a right even a duty to resist.. with violence or civil disobedience.. You should pray I choose the latter.”
I am sure you who so oppose civil disobedience of any form must find these lines attacking your theories at its very roots. I myself have always been indecisive about the glorification of civil disobedience especially when we have seen the outcome of such a weapon in the hands of the ethically perverse. But I’m left lingering in my thoughts. If not civil disobedience what else? Negotiations never work against a majority! They invariably and ironically end with a “majority consensus”. Violence? I’d rather live under oppression for many more years fighting an honest fight than ever suggest violence as a plausible solution to a social evil. Enquiry Commissions? They are a bureaucratic mechanism to dilute the effect of an issue. How then do you fight for justice against an oppressive majority?
Many of us, including you and I, hail the Law as a supreme authority. We do this, not so much because we know all our Laws and agree with them, but because we understand what lawlessness can create. It will lead to a society where “excess” becomes the authority. Excessive wealth and excessive power will eventually dominate. It is to protect the society from such a consequence and to ensure uniformity of treatment that Laws are put in place. Another key factor ofcourse is to maintain order. I am tempted to make a comment here. Maybe we should let chaos rule. In a million years, order will evolve! Sounds familiar? Darwin rolls in his tomb!
But jokes apart, what are we left with? On the one hand, Sam, we postulate the absolute importance of Law in the making and running of a society. On the other we feel the Law may even suppress injustice in favor or the majority. And this is not some far fetched whimsical paranoia. It is from the present and now.
And if civil disobedience were to be a form of reproach, how do we prevent chaos? Or can we make our Laws perfect?
I am sure there is a resonant answer to that last question. And that it is in the negative.
But if laws can never be perfect what of justice?
I await your thoughts on this Sam.