.. an Old Man’s Reflection on Civil Disobedience:
(c) 2015, Davd
Though i never experienced one myself, i remember them well, announced over school Public Address speakers and local radio stations back in the middle of the 20th Century; and i remember laughing when they were. In their best efforts at proper, even prim “Naughty! Naughty!” tones of voice, The Authorities admitted that their imposed routines had again been disrupted by—a Stink Bomb. Much as they may have been pained to speak aloud to the public, that childish slang word stink, there was no other short clear phrase to use. “A malodorous improvised device” was too formal and circumflatulent; the less intelligent—or to be clearer, the stupider members of the audience might not understand, might even go to see what on earth that long fancy phrase really meant.
Nobody wants to go to a stink.
… which, of course, is why there were boys1, probably small groups of boys, who made and “planted” them. Once a stink bomb “went off” there was nothing to do but get everyone safely away from it. “The Authorities” could not maintain their imposition of their chosen routines in the presence of a well planted, big bad stench… and for many boys, literally “making a big stink” was funny.
Notice, though, please: No one killed, no one injured. The damage a Stink Bomb did was cleaned up fairly quickly by a competent janitor, and perhaps some few people felt they had to wash some of their clothing. The purpose was to disrupt imposed routines, and frankly, the Stink Bombs achieved it efficiently and with a minimum of what now gets called “collateral damage.” Civil Disobedience is the harshest term you can fairly apply to a well-placed Stink Bomb.
Civil Disobedience, in a genuine democracy, is often punished but never severely. The usual charge is mischief, not some crime. Rarely, “the authorities” will concede that the purpose of some act of Civil Disobedience is indeed worthy—that what was disrupted should and could be improved upon—and decide not to punish at all.
To criminalize nonviolent, efficient Civil Disobedience is to confess yourselves a tyranny.
I don’t recall Stink Bombs ever becoming even daily events. It does, after all, take quite a lot of work to make and plant one. To some extent, those Stink Bombs probably did keep school authorities especially from making things even less boy friendly than they already were. Democracy depends on the consent of the governed, and in schools especially, where the governed could not vote, Stink Bombs were a way of saying non-consent. Even the boys who made them were willing to conform to most of the rules, most of the time. Civil Disobedience is part of democracy when the authorities go astray—and “the authorities” too, are sinners who fall well short of perfection.
In political conflicts, similar tactics express dissent but not with authorities. Either the “loggers” or the “environmentalists” in British Columbia, back around the turn of the century when their disputes were important public political theatre, managed an elegant variation on the Stink Bomb: They arranged to get liquid manure spread all over the Provincial Legislature lawn a day or two before the other side was to have a rally there. The manuring had actual merit as landscape maintenance, and for those walking past on the paved pedestrian walkways2, the stink was minimal. For those standing any length of time on the lawn, it was “somewhat worse”, and sitting on the lawn, a common protester’s way to rest, was, er, precluded.
… and like those Stink Bombs in schools and occasionally in places of pompous ceremony, it was funny, at least to those who agreed with the perpetrators rather than the ceremony. Civil Disobedience is in essence, emphatic, attention demanding dissent. Humour improves it.
I don’t recall, if i ever knew, how those Stink Bombs were made. Many things stink; many techniques exist for distributing them uh, quickly. I would count a large plastic bag of liquid manure, dropped somehow onto a stage just before the Premier is to walk up to the podium and announce that funds for medical cannabis for PTSD veterans, will be redirected to support later abortions, to be a Stink Bomb and one well deserved3. But so would be a sulfurous device whose stench is quite different. Just don’t set the theatre on fire: Good Stink Bombs are efficient4.
Perhaps the Stink Bomb example will inspire other, similarly efficient ways of Civil Disobedience that improve on Stink Bombs for many purposes and occasions. I wouldn’t want it to be the only way to dissent from unwelcome “authority” with a minimum of damage done; better there be several.
Several violent ways of dissent have become far more common in this century than they were in the middle of the last. Stink Bombs that were often Civil Disobedience5, in contrast, showed much of the discipline and focus that marked the hunting teams of primitive human societies. Activists can learn from those “naughty, naughty” boys—and for all i know, some of them were those boys.
Better a Stink Bomb than a car bomb, a suicide bomb, or some kind of chemical poison or germ-warfare. Democracy is not puppetry, and voting is not all there is to it. Good if we can improve on those old Stink Bomb pranks; good too, if we recognize that they were better than many of the conflict techniques that have come later.
1. I never heard of girls making or planting stink bombs. In those mid-20th Century days, i doubt any girls did. Today? who knows? but it does seem that stink is more men’s than women’s work: How many women garbage collectors do you see? How many Feminists are demanding gender parity in that job? How many silly references have you heard to the husband’s rather than the wife’s duty to “take out the garbage”?
It may be worth adding, that women’s bodies are equally capable of stinking, perhaps more so—but working with things that stink is not Ladylike, and as Elaine Morgan wrote in 1972: “We’re all turning into ladies; and while people have sometimes jocularly debated ‘Do women make good mothers?’ nobody’s ever bothered to ask ‘Do ladies make good mothers?’ because the question obviously didn’t apply. Well, it applies now, and henceforth increasingly.” (The Descent of Woman: London[UK]: Souvenir Press. p. 249)
2. Ah! the uncertainties of Canadian English! In US-English they are sidewalks, in British English, “pavements”.
3. This is a secular website, but i am permitted to acknowledge myself a Christian, and my Christian faith considers convenience abortions to be evil… as i have explained in secular terms in an earlier blog.
4. As i draft this blog, a series of bomb threats have disrupted the WestJet airline… so let me say “loud and clear” that a Stink Bomb on an airplane in flight is much more damaging than the same Stink Bomb would be among the same number of people in a meeting room or a restaurant. It might even cause serious sickness…. and an airplane is not a public place such as Civil Disobedience normally chooses. There are good ecological reasons to question today’s extensive air travel; but i couldn’t call a Stink Bomb in flight, a non-violent nor an efficient way to convey them.
5. I’m not certain of this recollection, but it seems to me that once or twice, Stink Bombs were used to disrupt school examinations and the suspicion was, that they were planted by students who didn’t feel ready to take the tests.