Hannah Arendt Center Conferences
[Citizenship and Civil Disobedience]

Citizenship and Civil Disobedience

Thursday, October 11, 2018 – Friday, October 12, 2018 Olin Humanities Building
10:00 am – 6:00 pm
This event occurred on:  Thu. October 11, 10 am – Fri. October 12 – 6 pm

Citizenship and Civil Disobedience
A Conference Sponsored by
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College
Thursday and Friday, Oct. 11-12, 2018

"'As soon as several inhabitants of the United States have taken up an opinion or a feeling which they wish to promote in the world,' or have found some fault they wish to correct, 'they look out for mutual assistance, and as soon as they have found one another out, they combine. From that moment, they are no longer isolated men but a power seen from afar, whose actions serve for an example and whose language is listened to.' It is my contention that civil disobedients are nothing but the latest form of voluntary association, and that they are thus quite in tune with the oldest traditions of the country." - Hannah Arendt, On Civil Disobedience (citing Alexis de Tocqueville)

From antifa, Occupy, #metoo, Black Lives Matters, and sanctuary cities, to the Tea Party, Patriots, #fakenews, and fundamentalist bakers in Colorado, the tradition of American civil disobedience is being reinvigorated as form of mass political citizenship. The rise in civil disobedience is a sign of a revolutionary situation. But revolutionary situations rarely lead to revolution. More often they lead to counter revolution or to nothing at all.

Civil disobedience succeeds when it expresses new ideas that inspire the majority. Arendt criticized the student revolutionaries of the 1960s because they lacked new ideas that could transform the revolutionary situation into a political revolution. Without ideas, the violence of so-called revolutionaries is nothing more than protest. The creation of a new meaningful politics is the challenge of movements like Black Lives Matter, the Resistance, and the Tea Party. To become revolutionary political movements, these associations must imagine a more legitimate and just world.
The Arendtian tradition of citizenship and civil disobedience involves not individual acts of conscience, but political movements that mobilize organized minorities. Civil disobedience is an act of citizenship by which minorities can change the minds of majorities. Thus, disobedient minorities—those groups who collectively dissent from majority opinion—are not traitors or rebels, but are part of the fabric of democratic government.

Civil disobedience can be uncivil. But Arendt knew that being an active citizen is dangerous. She famously wrote, “Whoever entered the political realm had first to be ready to risk his life, and too great a love for life obstructed freedom, was a sure sign of slavishness. Courage therefore became the political virtue par excellence.” As dangerous as political action is, it is also the lifeblood of democratic political change.

The outbreak of civil disobedience today manifests the fraying of a consensus around questions of economic and racial equality as well as social discrimination, immigration, and the uses of American power abroad. So many various minorities are dissenting from the established way of doing things that we ask whether there is still something that holds our diverse and divergent nation together. In raising the questions of citizenship and civil disobedience, we ask if and how a new democratic American ideal can emerge.

This inquiry into the power of political dissent to unify a plurality animates the Hannah Arendt Center’s 11th Annual Conference, “Citizenship and Civil Disobedience.” Our conference will consider the following questions:
  • Is civil disobedience an exemplary act of citizenship?
  • Why is citizen activism emerging across all parts of the political spectrum?
  • Can civil disobedience help reunite majority opinion around common truths?
  • Is civil disobedience usable by dissidents on both the left and the right?
  • Are we today in a revolutionary situation?
  • Should violence be used in civil disobedience?
  • Does democracy require civility?
The Arendt Center’s mission is to think through contemporary ethical and political questions in the spirit of Hannah Arendt. Arendt worried that the greatest threat to American freedom was the rise of a technocratic bureaucracy that replaced thinking with calculation and inured government from its need to be responsible to the people. To combat the sense of alienation and impotence in modern politics, Arendt argued that people must think for themselves and act freely in public. Arendt Center conferences are institutional spaces for non-conventional and independent thinking about questions that matter. 

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On-site Registration will be available.