Risk and reward: Ethan Zuckerman discusses disobedience

(Ethan Zuckerman discussed the positive and negative effects of disobedience. Photo by Andrew Willoughby)

Approximately 50 students, faculty and staff were presented with the question, “Is this the moment for disobedience?” as they sat in the McCarthy Center Forum on Feb. 27. 

Director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT Ethan Zuckerman posed that question.

Zuckerman’s talk “Rewarding Disobedience,” is part of the Arts & Ideas Spring 2018 series centered around the theme of “Duty and Disobedience.”

Arts & Ideas Chair and English professor Lisa Eck said Zuckerman’s talk acts “as an anchor or keynote speech about the theme of duty and disobedience and what perhaps is our duty to disobedience.”

Zuckerman discussed the act of rewarding disobedience throughout history.

He said rewarding those actions dates back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire with the Order of Maria Theresa. It was a military award given to someone who violated an order or who took actions into their own hands that turned out to have a major military impact.

“The downside is, if you disobey within the military and you’re wrong, you get killed. So, why do you reward this? The answer is you reward this because all plans are fallible. You reward this because you don’t want people to always blindly follow orders,” he said.

The goal is to have people evaluate a situation and question it. “You want them to take that risk of breaking the rules, even in situations where it could be high stress,” Zuckerman said.    

Disobedience is “extremely” complicated he added. It’s possible to be successfully disobedient without doing anything. It’s harder to be successfully disobedient by actually “mobilizing and going out in the streets.”

On several occasions, disobedience fueled by action ends up being “enormously” unsuccessful even if it’s considered brave, Zuckerman said.

He added a lot of what people know regarding civil disobedience comes from The Civil Rights Movement.

Planned disobedience was a part of the movement, according to Zuckerman.

He said Rosa Parks was “incredible, committed,” and a “career activist” who participated in a planned act of disobedience. Her actions were not exactly a spontaneous event.

“The Birmingham bus boycott is an astounding example of preparation. … This is the sort of thing that required thousands of hours… trying to figure out how they were going to disobey successfully,” Zuckerman said. 

Zuckerman and his colleagues at the Center for Civic Media created the disobedience award with the funding provided by Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn. The award is a $250,000 cash prize, which is given to a person or group who took part in responsible and ethical disobedience.

He said they wanted to reward commitment. “We wanted to reward not someone who showed up once. … We wanted to find people who have been standing up or sitting down or taking a knee for years – often without that recognition.”

The 2017 winners were Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Professor Marc Edward, who put their professional careers on the line, according to Zuckerman, to expose the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.   

Sophomore Molly Roach said, “It’s nice to talk about disobedience in a way that has to do with specifically rewarding it, because I feel like we don’t talk about it enough.”

Zuckerman said, “It’s pretty easy to be brave once and stand up once. It’s harder to do it every day of your life.”