Widgets Magazine

OPINIONS

Defending Kim Davis

Defending  Kim Davis is a questionable act. Ever since she made national headlines in September for refusing to issue marriage licenses — to any couple — because she believed the sanctity of marriage had been ruined by the ruling in favor of gay marriage, this county clerk from Kentucky has been made a caricature: a hero for few and the paradigm of prejudice for many liberals.

I personally believe nothing redeems a person who invalidates other people’s lives, but I do want to defend one thing Kim Davis did: Not her plea for a religious exemption, but that she employed civil disobedience to protest.

Refusing to issue marriage licenses was, in its own right, an act of civil disobedience. It is easy to agree with civil disobedience in retrospect — when thinking about the Civil Rights Movement or India’s fight for freedom — but when it disrupts our lives, we turn a critical eye to it. When protests raged in Ferguson, President Barack Obama stood in front of a nation and asked for “productive” responses to generations of discrimination and violence — and that isn’t unreasonable.

The use of violence is hard to defend, but that wasn’t the only form of protest under attack. What was implicit in his statement was the call for protesters to obey laws, even those laws that they believed were discriminatory in nature or execution. In refusing to do that, Ferguson started a movement that wasn’t meek, that couldn’t be ignored. It would be ideal if all change could come through peaceful dialogue in safe settings, except that hasn’t worked for decades — what works is disruptive protest. And that is because laws are designed to keep unrest minimal and quiet — and silence tends to help the oppressor and not the oppressed.

When years of trying to achieve the American Dream ended in segregated housing and police brutality, and when so many bodies have been laid down, with nobody to hear their cry — why should protest be productive or compliant, when the reality so many people face is disruptive and violent?

It is easy to not protest at all — to leave our complex hierarchies and systems unchallenged instead of engaging in dangerous revolutions. Especially in a bureaucracy, where you’re just passing along papers, it feels intuitive to relegate the responsibility for your actions to someone — something — else. But the huge systems that we are a part of mean we are capable of acting, with or without thinking, and effecting large change.

That contradiction — of being a part of a large body and yet feeling no responsibility for its crimes — was at the heart of the Nuremberg Trials. Nowhere else has this contradiction been so publicly considered — that people can be doing their ordinary jobs, and through that unthinking, banal cruelty, orchestrate an evil that cannot be forgiven.

“The Yuppie Nuremberg defense,” that we’re just trying to pay the mortgage, is the defense most people use — and justifiably, because standing apart is enormously difficult. Sometimes, the protest is buried, brushed aside, inconsequential. But as Shonda Rhimes said, countless people have to hit a glass ceiling before it can crack — and many more before it can shatter.

In writing about the Nuremberg trials, the political theorist Hannah Arendt proposed something simple: “To think what we are doing.” But moreover, to act on it — to realize the consequences of our day-to-day labor and consumption. To think and to act requires citizens to rise above being a cog in the machine; and that means refusing to issue licenses if the law changes to what you consider unjust, because it is your civil duty.

There is a distinction between agreeing with someone’s beliefs and acknowledging that they have the right to that opinion. And yet the more we care about an issue, the harder it is to let people have views we consider preposterous. That response is not irrational or wrong — it is just a function of how our empathy works. But we have to make an effort to recognize that sometimes our emotions shouldn’t guide our actions.

The fundamental condition of politics is that it goes on among plural human beings, each of whom can act and start something new (Hannah Arendt). That condition is not an inconvenience to our development — it is the hope for it, and we have to recognize it as such.

Leagues separate the Nuremberg trials from Ferguson or Kim Davis, but what ties them together is that in each case, people were suffering while other stumbled around what to call justice. Yet, that skirmish is vital — and for that debate to happen, we need to see divisive issues as worthy of disruptive protest, especially in the form of civil disobedience, even when it clashes with our personal beliefs.

The point is not to have such an open mind that we are left unable to defend what we believe in — the point is to defend your beliefs — when they are well-informed — fiercely, and yet not take away other people’s right to advocate just as loudly.

We can just ask Kim Davis to do her job — and say she broke her oath to office and that therein lies her crime. But we shouldn’t. Kim Davis may be wrong about several things, but the one thing she did right, that most of us don’t, is seeing her job as more than stamping a paper — and seeing it as a part of her moral duty.

Our society has entangled justice with economics and is more dependent on bureaucracy now than ever before — and when an injustice is done, justice sometimes can only come from making the machine screech to a halt. Sometimes that means someone like Kim Davis makes the news, but sometimes it means a boy is killed and a highway is blocked and a whole nation stops to hear: BLACK LIVES MATTER.

Contact Rhea Karuturi at rheakaru ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

  • Sunil Gupta

    Powerful points, well articulated.

    One question – can a current public servant, while on payroll, refuse to do her job in the name of civil disobedience, however strongly she (and you) feel about an issue? I would not think so. M.K.Gandhi was not a salaried employee of the British government, nor was Martin Luther King.

    So, while your points, like “There is a distinction between agreeing with someone’s beliefs and acknowledging that they have the right to that opinion. And yet the more we care about an issue, the harder it is to let people have views we consider preposterous” are well articulated, and resonate well with what any mature & free society holds as true, they do not address what I think is core in the matter of Kim Davis – can a Government employee refuse to do her job while in employment as a means of protest. Nothing prevents her to quit and start a civil movement, does it? If one cannot quit, then there are other methods that can & do work – black bands, articles, leading or joining groups of like minded people, the press & media and more. But refusing to do the work one is paid for?

  • Jason Farnon

    “One question – can a current public servant, while on payroll, refuse to do her job in the name of civil disobedience, however strongly she (and you) feel about an issue? I would not think so. M.K.Gandhi was not a salaried employee of the British government, nor was Martin Luther King.”

    but the many attorneys general, including holder, who declined to honor state prohibitions on gay marriage were. you might make an argument that they concluded the law was unconstitutional and were thus doing their job by honoring a supervening duty–a little rich considering they all simultaneously reached that conclusion within the same 3-4 year period that supporting gay marriage became politically expedient, though many of those laws were on the books for decades.

  • concerned

    this is a ridiculous argument….are you really saying that Kim Davis’ refusal to issue licences to gay couples is comparable to fighting racism in our country, or to speaking out against the Holocaust?! By your same logic, then, what would you say if her religion taught her that black and white people, or Jews and Gentiles, are not allowed to marry?

  • Jill F

    The writer has taken the position that standing up for one’s convictions is always a good thing, even if a person is in fact wrong, breaks the law and violates the rights of others in the process.

    I do not agree. A lot of evil and damage can be done by people who think the’re doing the right thing, and claim to be acting in accordance with “God’s authority” and their personal religious beliefs.

    Kim Davis’ behavior is not in fact civil disobediance. She is not a civilian standing up to the government to protest unjust laws or policies. She IS the government. She is a government
    official in a position of power and
    authority at the top of her chain of
    command. She prohibited public employees under her supervision from
    doing their jobs of issuing marriage
    licenses and prevented ordinary citizens from receiving services and documents that they are legally entitled to. She abused her power and authority over the less powerful. She engaged in official misconduct, not civil disobedience.

  • Candid One

    A confused and disingenuous comment.

  • Candid One

    Your surmise is correct. As an individual, Ms. Davis has the protection of her beliefs under the 1st Amendment. However, her disputed actions are that of a government official, which the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment prohibits. Ms. Davis can be an individual and she can be a government representative but in matters such as her premise for her actions–she isn’t both. Her position as a private citizen has no authority to deny those licenses. Her position as a government agent has no

    authority to impose religious–or personal–views with any of her actions. She must “give unto Ceasar…” or resign…her only choices.

  • Jason Farnon

    so a random person on the internet thinks an argument is “confused and disingenuous”. you’ve really contributed a lot to this discussion.

  • Jason Farnon

    “even if a person is in fact wrong, breaks the law and violates the rights of others in the process”

    an utterly circular argument. who decides when the law-breaker/civil dissident is “in fact wrong”?