“Rebellion cannot exist without the feeling that somewhere, in some way, you are justified” – Albert Camus

What do alcoholics, the Arab Spring, the occupy movement, video game addiction and silicon-valley have in common?

They are all forms of rebellion.

In each instance, there is an individual or a group of individuals who, whether consciously or unconsciously, feel oppressed, marginalized or unjustly restricted. And their actions are a response to this oppression.

Why does this resistance occur?

From a sociological perspective, it would seem that rebellion works as a release-valve for pent up tension. In a ‘just’ society [or family or workplace] there is a sense of things being in balance, but in an unjust society there is a build-up of frustrated energy. Rebellion in this case works to release this energy.

When societies grow to millions of people, certain problems naturally arise. One is that just due to the nature of a large group of people, it is hard for everyone to feel like they have autonomy. The result is that they compare themselves to others who they believe have that freedom, and this comparison prompts a sense of injustice. These feelings, autonomy and justice, are obviously key to a healthy individual and a healthy community.

As social animals we will always have to make certain compromises to the needs of the group. However, when we believe that the rules of justice that govern the group are no longer being honored, anger and tension builds up inside of us.

While this is in part a natural issue of scale, it is also an issue of ineffective governance. And ultimately one clear way in which individuals can feel that they have a sense of control, whether real or manufactured, is by rebelling against the dominant power structure – usually the central order or authority. To a certain degree then, it would seem that rebellion is probably inherent in most cultures.

“To a certain degree then, it would seem that rebellion is probably inherent in most cultures.”

Social scientists have tried to understand the causes of rebellion by reducing it to economic indicators. But this is not why people rebel. In fact Eric Selbin, a political science professor at Southwest University, found that by listening to the stories of people in different societies, he could see themes independent of economic indicators that were more likely to give rise to social or political revolutions.

His belief was that rather than economic, political or social structures being the direct link to these uprisings, it was the thoughts and feelings of the individuals in the society that were greater indicators. It is the story that the individual tells themselves about their own life and society that makes all the difference.

If people believe that they are trapped or restricted by ideological conditions, they will react. And when well organized groups of individuals create coherent stories around which to construct their rebellion, revolution will occur.

Trust is necessary for societies–trust between people and the power structure. Today we are in a strange position in which we have access to dozens of ideas and more options than we know what to do with. The result? We are more easily to see through facades that are put in front of us by mainstream institutions, and we have lost that trust between ‘us’ and the people in power.

When societal institutions are unable to promote empowerment, participation, autonomy or trust, the result is that a population will feel marginalized and eventually rebel. It really seems that the Western world, and particularly right now the United States, through civil riots, is beginning to play this out. In fact, in 2013 just 20% of Americans reported having trust in the government, compared to 77% in 1964.

How do we rebel?

How this rebellion occurs on a personal level is typically one of two ways; constructive or destructive – and to a large degree it’s up to the individual to choose which path they take.
More often we see the latter. Destructive rebellion is unhealthy and is characterized by chaos, confusion and stagnation. It can be subtle such as in the case of passive aggression or video game addictions. Or it may be more extreme such as heavy drug addictions and ideological fundamentalism. Constructive rebellion on the other hand, is what we should all be aiming for. This is usually characterized by order, a clear connection with your goals, and progress. This rebellion comes in the form of creation, such as with writers, artists or entrepreneurs, who may strive to disrupt and uplift society. Knowing which form of rebellion you fall into is key to personal and cultural development.

“Destructive Rebellion is the path of least resistance.”

Destructive Rebellion is unfortunately too common. It is the path of least resistance, and when someone is confused, alienated, and lacks confidence, this is the route they’re likely to take. As rebellion is largely about finding a voice, when that voice is expressed through a drug heavy subculture or some fundamentalist beliefs, the expression gets darks for both the individual and the society. This constructive, destructive dichotomy however isn’t so clean cut. Mike Tyson is a perfect example of someone who, in his rebellion against the oppression of his childhood, cultivated a sporting talent most of us can only dream of. It is fair to label his professional achievements productive. However, his character flaws allowed him to be lured towards negative rebellion as well, radical anti-authoritarian stances, physical violence outside of the ring, domestic and drug abuse, all plagued his life and career.

The internet and constructive rebellion in the 21st century

The impact of the digital age on both constructive and destructive rebellion is twofold. Technology gives us ample opportunity to provide for our hedonistic needs. If you want to retreat into your cave, smoke marijuana, play video games and watch porn – that’s a viable option which won’t require significant resources, and can largely be done on minimum wage. In fact, with advancements in sexual technologies, the degree to which marginalized men may retreat into the virtual world is concerning, to say the least.

On the flip side, for creatives who are looking for a way to rebel constructively, there are exponential opportunities. Though many of us are frustrated with everything from our educational to our medicinal institutions and the role of privatized bodies in government interests, the internet provides us a way to democratize a lot of these areas.

One platform that has proven successful in this respect is crowdfunding. Whereas traditionally, start-ups required venture capitalists for funding, nowadays ideas can largely be funded on the basis of public interest and the inherent strength of the idea. This redistributes capital towards ideas backed by a wider public interest and not just immediate corporate incentives. Taking this a step further, digital communities, as allowed by the internet, have taken shape and given like-minded people a place to share views on everything from business to health to gender issues. The result is, as you’d expect, a melting pot. But this still provides a landscape within which creative, healthy and importantly, counter-cultural views can grow. People are able to voice their opinions in forums and the earlier notion of the release-valve takes effect.

Going forward

What we need now is a working road map to navigate the peaks and troughs of rebellion in the 21st century. How we may do this is through first acknowledging what needs to change in our communities and why we need to encourage creative rebellion. Digital communities can and likely will play a fundamental role in this process.

“The positive role of constructive rebellion in the progress of a society is huge.”

The positive role of constructive rebellion in the progress of a society is huge. What will happen is that as more people see that change is a real possibility, they will begin to believe in their own autonomy, and shift away from destructive habits as confidence gathers momentum.
Our challenge now as individuals is to be early adopters of progressive ideas, to go against the grain without fear or hesitation, with the self-belief that despite opinions to the contrary, we’re making a positive difference in our world.