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‘Good’ trouble

Huzaima Bukhari

“Rosa Parks inspired me to find a way to get in the way, to get in trouble….good trouble, necessary trouble”—John Lewis

The word ‘trouble’ and its various forms evoke negativity with all its manifestations. Not even for a moment one can imagine anything positive associated with ‘trouble’, ‘troubling’, ‘troublesome’ and ‘troubled.’ A troubled person, in a troubling situation, goes and troubles someone else to troubleshoot his problem and until a solution is found, the trouble continues. Look up either a dictionary or the thesaurus, other than negativity, nothing positive is akin with ‘trouble’ so, it would be astounding to colligate a positive adjective with it. Yet, there is such a thing as ‘good trouble.’ 

Throughout centuries of knowledge (not wisdom, which spans over a greater duration of time) sages have wracked their brains in making sense of a most complicated branch of legal studies, popularly known as ‘jurisprudence’—in simpler terms, study, knowledge, philosophy or science of law. This field attracts mostly those who are not too keen on making money by fighting cases in courts of law but prefer to explore the complex realms of various statutes, their origins, their need and their implications. Thus, while some fill up pages of textbooks and legal encyclopedias with critical appreciation of bodies of law tracing their historical development, others make a comparative study with diverse branches of knowledge and cultural influences while yet others are persistently seeking answers to what is law and how do judges perceive, interpret and adjudicate it in the light of various court pronouncements, called precedents, or decide a certain matter for the first time. All this has sprung from the fact that man makes laws!

Laws and regulations are unending lists of dos and don’ts that are imposed upon a person since his birth to his last day on earth. At every step of his life, he is confronted with heaps of rules that prevent him from doing something, that hurl obstacles in his way, that if defied, could cause him to endure punishment. He finds himself chained in unseen shackles intended to suppress his freedom and force him to exercise his will with propriety. Fair enough! If left loose, the egoistic monster resting within each one of us could play havoc with the peace of this world. So we make laws. To keep the beast of free will under control. Generally speaking, laws can be considered highly integral for the very survival of man. They must be obeyed or else there would be chaos and destruction all around. This implies that anyone attempting to disrupt the legal system is a trouble-maker who deserves to be disciplined or for willful violation to be punished as per relevant law. Sounds reasonable but then why cry out in support when this trouble-maker causes disturbance?

Here is where one is actually treading on the shores of troubled waters.

One thing stands established. Laws are not made by the weaker segments of society but the most powerful. Legislation is a process conducted by village headmen or those sitting in parliaments and congresses. One never hears a poor farmer or a city labourer making laws to be obeyed by the strong. He is merely a subject who will have to perform according to the dictates of the mighty no matter how unethical or imprudent, even in some cases absurd and illogical, those laws are but when laws are purportedly based on conscious application of mind, could they be considered unconscionable?

This is again a difficult proposition. When legislators make laws, are they mindful of the fact that they themselves could come under its range? Envisaging a simple situation, say, a non-smoker creates “good trouble” by vehemently opposing concessions given to the tobacco industry, calls for high taxes and actively works to successfully eliminate it completely, suddenly takes to enjoying a puff or two getting gradually addicted. Would, under the changed circumstances, his conscience permit him to restore the industry knowing very well that smoking is injurious to health? This is a clear indication of the fact that laws should be based on ethics but by no means should ethics be determined in the light of laws and rules. In this backdrop it can be said that selling cigarettes is legal but certainly not ethical.

Talking of ethics, do law makers have this in mind? Are they observing the ‘golden rule’ or the principle of treating others as you want to be treated? Many would definitely agree that morality is a vital element which cannot be ignored while drafting laws. Yet many a statutes have been written that not only infringe upon ethics but are also a slur on the conscience. The best examples could be given of apartheid South Africa during the ‘White’ rule and of United States of America where human beings were (and are) discriminated on account of their colour and ethnicity. In a world that constantly talks about human rights, has hugely funded international organizations that act like umpires over countries, especially of the Third World, looking for an iota of violation to declare them as inhuman, such regulations that intend keeping a specific community at bay, depriving its members from interacting with the privileged white people, attending high-end institutions or daring to protest against a discriminatory rule, cannot be called anything but immoral.

In this scenario, people like Rosa Parks and John Lewis are said to create ‘good trouble’ because they are essentially stirring a peaceful awakening against something that is undesirable. When this is the intention then breaking the law is meant to attract immediate attention like when Parks refused to vacate her seat on the Montgomery, Alabama bus for a white person which was the segregation law back in 1955. Inspired by Parks’ act, leaders of the Black community started the bus boycott campaign and initiated the Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In a recent incident in a high school in Dallas, Georgia, USA, a 15 years old student was suspended as she broke the school’s rule of using her mobile phone to take a snap of the crowded school hallway where majority of her fellow students were not wearing face masks during the Corona virus pandemic and of posting on the social media without taking the school authority’s approval. She defended her act by claiming to make public the school’s apathy about something that was potentially harmful to a large population. Would she have been granted permission had she sought it according to the rules? Even Hillary Clinton praised her for invoking the late John Lewis famous phrase “good trouble.”

Even in Pakistan, there are many people who may be condemned for their critical writings, public interest litigations, and street demonstrations or speaking aloud on laws pestering the environment, labour/handicapped/old age rights, and challenging the government on various decisions they find disturbing or outrageous. These are men and women who are not necessarily trouble-makers, but are, in fact proactive and engaged in arousing “good trouble.”


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

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