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Deliberation in an age of (un)civil resistance

William Smith, The Chinese University of Hong Kong

Tue 15 September 2020

11:00am - 12:00pm

Virtual seminar

Seminar recording is available on our YouTube channel.


Richard Spencer, an influential ‘Alt-Right’ provocateur, was punched in the face while giving an interview on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration as United States president. The assailant was affiliated with ‘Antifa’, an activist network committed to combatting the rise of far-right movements through confrontational and often violent means. Antifa are emblematic of a wave of movements whose tactics and conduct cannot be subsumed under the traditional category of nonviolent civil disobedience. There has, concurrently, been a surge of interest among political philosophers on the idea of ‘uncivil disobedience’, with a range of theorists converging on the view that there is often no compelling rationale for limiting dissent to the nonviolent repertoire associated with civil disobedience. This paper takes these political and theoretical developments as a catalyst for reconsidering deliberative democratic approaches to activism and protest. It argues that the tendency to frame protest through the catch-all category of ‘non-deliberative’ behavior elides the important distinction between civil and uncivil disobedience, treating as analogous forms of conduct that are quite different in terms of their potential consequences and their ethical complexion. The paper focuses in particular on the difficult case of violence, exploring the normative scope for deliberative theorists to treat it as a potentially legitimate mode of uncivil resistance.

About the speaker

William Smith is Associate Professor in Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He works in the field of contemporary political theory, with a particular focus on civil disobedience, deliberative democracy and international political thought. He is author of Civil Disobedience and Deliberative Democracy(Routledge 2013) and has published in a wide range of international journals, including Ethics & International Affairs, The Journal of Political Philosophy, and Political Studies.

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