“Business as usual is not an option”: Themes of disobedience in 2018

Patrick Breen

by Janine Liberty

Nov. 30, 2018

“Business as usual is not an option.” This is the common theme that emerged in speaking with the winners of this year’s Disobedience Award—Tarana Burke and Sherry Marts. Both have acknowledged their personal experience with sexual misconduct and their frustration at authorities roadblocking justice for survivors as motivating factors in their commitment to their cause. Both chose to take a stand against the silencing and dismissal of survivors, and in refusing to back down they have given others the strength to do the same.

“One theme we noticed this year, not only among the winners but among many of the nominees, was that the urgency of the issues we face locally and globally is compelling people to take action,” says selection committee member Jamila Raqib. “And increasingly, these are people who don't necessarily identify as activists, but who recognize they have a role to play in changing systems, rights, institutions, or in preserving them.”

As the Disobedience Award becomes an annual event, the selection committee is tasked not only with selecting winners and finalists who exemplify the principles of the award, but also with considering the cultural landscape that produced the nominees—the emerging and changing nature of responsible, ethical disobedience in an increasingly complicated world.

The selection committee unanimously agreed to recognize the extraordinary impact of the #MeToo and #MeTooSTEM movements in honoring these three winners. The team of 11 scientists, social justice experts, and thought leaders used a multi-step process to narrow the field of nominees. They all read through the nominations and picked out their favorites; then followed an exhaustive process of researching candidates and discussing support and opposition to each until they arrived at a shortlist of 10; and then selected the winners and finalists by rank-order voting. This process allowed the committee members to see patterns and make a decision they believe will have the greatest impact on the most people.

“I believe that seven or eight of our nominees from the final 10 were women, and once we realized we were likely to have a majority female class, we realized that it was a completely appropriate outcome given the power of the #MeToo movement,” explains Ethan Zuckerman, head of the Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media and a selection committee member. “We realized that honoring the power of female activists would build on their work and connect to the other remarkable women in our pool of nominees.”

Joi Ito and Reid Hoffman founded the award last year to reward acts of what they termed “ethical disobedience”—nonviolent protest, defiance, or action in service of a cause greater than oneself. Two years and thousands of nominations later, Ito and the selection committee are learning what this kind of disobedience means to people around the world, both those who engage in it and those who benefit from it.

“Beyond the basic concept of ‘disobedience for societal benefit,’ we’re starting to see deeper, more nuanced ideas emerging,” says Ito. “This year, for example, what we’re really seeing is an incredible frustration among women with the status quo. We recognized in all of our winners and finalists their willingness to be a megaphone for the voiceless—they’re speaking truth to power, and in doing so showing how there can be disobedience in the very act of telling the truth.”

“Our selections have a lot to say about the way that individuals can start movements, and the ways their actions can lead to the growth of larger movements,” says Zuckerman. “I think of this year as recognizing the way one person's voice can make a difference and the ways that many voices raised together can build movements that grow, spread, and sustain.”

The committee also considered how the award could support and strengthen the systems and frameworks that allow people to act courageously. From Tarana Burke’s to finalist Tara Parrish’s mobilizing of her local City Council and Yusra Mardini’s UN goodwill ambassadorship, this year’s standout disobedience candidates have used organization and organizations as tools for effective, productive change. “Over time, we want to support the ecosystem of disobedience that is required for effective defense of our rights and institutions,” noted Raqib.

One voice can become a movement; one courageous act can begin a chain of events that changes the world. The #MeToo movement has raised the profile of disobedience as an ideology and built a level of awareness that changes the game on “business as usual.”

Selection committee member Martha Minow summed it up nicely: “Many crucial advances toward justice have depended on the willingness of people to disobey formal and informal rules and to resist conspiracies of silence. This year, women advancing equality and fairness by speaking out against sexual assault are rocking the boat and taking on formal and informal systems—and it is wonderful to have the chance to honor some of them.” 

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