If I were to describe snippets of my childhood to you, you might conclude that I was kind of a rebel or something. I got in trouble and got disciplined more than most of my siblings. I was suspended once, and got detention another time, and have absolutely no excuse for either incident (meaning I was completely in the wrong both times). I got in a show-down with my Pre-Calc teacher once, made one of my all-time favorite teachers cry and leave the room, set off an alarm at Mount Vernon for sneaking through barred-off areas, got in trouble more times than I can count for refusing to wear shoes, and warred (and won) with my Master Gunnery Sergeant over my pre-deployment training schedule.
This list is in no way exhaustive. I often brought others down in my apparent waywardness, like my cousin who got detention because she did what I did. Or any other friend who joined me in some scheme that ended up with alarms and searches, five-year-olds trying to climb on the roof, or broken ankles.
But here’s the thing. I wasn’t a rebel. Not the kind you’re thinking of, anyway, which is the Classic Rebel, or the Type 1 Rebel. If anything, I was what I am now going to call (I am making these categories up) a Type 2 Rebel, aka the Accidental Rebel, or the Ignorant Rebel. There is also the Type 3 Rebel (the best one, in my humble opinion), the Principled Rebel.
I’m going to go through what I know of these three types and how functional I think each is in the act of actually rebelling against something that deserves to be rebelled against.
The Classic Rebel (Type 1):
This is the one we think of first when we hear the word “rebel.” It’s the person who, by nature, has to go against the grain. And, yes, I do mean “by nature.” Some of us just have inherently rebellious personalities that have nothing to do with what we are rebelling against and everything to do with the fact that we like to kick against the goads.
This is the one who doesn’t disobey their parents because they forgot, or because they disagreed, or because they came up with a better idea, but just because the idea of having a restriction (even a good one) placed upon them makes their skin crawl.
The thing about the Classic Rebel is that they are like a driving current that can be thrown in any direction simply by telling them to go in the opposite one. Their rebellion is often far more reactive than it is substantive. It can be channeled into acting on values, but that isn’t why it exists. It exists because the Classic Rebel has a vendetta against society, and the sins of society aren’t even the source of the vendetta, just the excuse for it.
I think people often say this proudly–“well I’m a rebel. I don’t listen to anyone“–but I don’t think that’s very helpful in the long run. Besides, it’s like someone taking pride in the color of their hair; it’s just plain nature and if you don’t hone it towards something valuable, it’s not going to do anyone any good.
Let’s use the example of WWII–an extreme one, I know, but it clarifies: Say you have a Classic Rebel living in Vichy France. Their instinct to rebel may well lead them to become a maquisard and fight against the Germans. Germans=authority. Authority=restrictions. The restrictions have got to go. But since the instinct is to rebel against authority, they are just as likely to find the original French government to have been repressive and side with the Germans against them, rebelling against that. Or perhaps, in rebelling against societal norms to which they are accustomed, they adopt the new societal norms that the Germans offered. Or, even beyond that, they may join the resistance, but refuse to listen to their maquis leaders, and may have botched life-saving missions because they have to go against the grain.
Most of us who have this streak in us learn to temper it over time, discerning when to let that rebellious spirit die in the face of good advice or better aims, and when to let it fight for a good cause. But some don’t, and they go on fighting agains the grain, even when the grain is very good.
Look, I am as excited as anyone about the new Star Wars: Rogue One movie but my LEAST FAVORITE part of of the preview is where our tough heroine hears a litany of her past actions recited to her as a sort of chastisement and she simply responds:
“Well, this is a rebellion isn’t it? That’s what I do. I rebel.”
I rolled my eyes, honestly. I know it’s a preview, and they wanted her to say something punchy and catchy…I get it. But rebelling for the sake of rebelling doesn’t mean much. If the Empire starts calling themselves rebels, you gonna join them too? Because that could happen.
The Accidental/Ignorant Rebel (type 2):
The Accidental Rebel neither feels the need to conform to society, nor to rebel against it, because the Accidental Rebel is usually oblivious or indifferent to what is going on around them. They just don’t care what people think. They don’t need to be liked.
A lot of people SAY this about themselves, but it is rarely true, and this is evidenced by the fact that we are usually a lot kinder in person than we are on the internet. In person we cultivate community and friendships, and sometimes this involves a low level of conformity (like watching a movie that’s not your thing just to spend time with people you enjoy and admire).
The accidental rebel has a droplet of the sociopath in them, and I DON’T say that to be mean (I’m talking about myself here). The social protocols and interactions that make sense to everyone else elude them.
Are they dressed in that outrageous fashion because they are making a statement? No. They are dressed that way because they don’t understand or care about fashion (at all) and they get dressed like most people handle playing cards: shuffle, deal, and play with whatever lands in your hand.
[Since I claim myself predominantly type 2, I’ll explain: My husband is not a fashion guy at all, but I have to ask him if things match or look good or are in any way appropriate to the occasion.]
There is good and bad to the accidental rebel. They certainly think for themselves, and are usually obnoxiously independent, but they can lack empathy and hospitality and general awareness of those around them. It’s the trade-off. The part of them that is free from any obligation to conform, is also sometimes free from the humility and compassion associated with learning from others and listening to others and (VERY IMPORTANT) understanding others, especially when their situation ‘doesn’t interest you.’
I was rarely embarrassed or uncomfortable as a child, even when I perhaps should have been. I was always 100% confident in my opinions, even the most absurdly wrong ones. I did not disobey because I felt rebellious, but because I was certain of my course of action, and because I felt conviction. I did what I thought was right–and I desperately wanted to do what was right–and ate the consequences if I turned out to be wrong. My mind was not easily changed and, with rare exception, “what everyone else was doing” had no bearing on my decision, either to either go along or fight against.
The good of this is that I avoided falling into a lot of stupid trends and dangerous traps because I didn’t care what people thought of me (in retrospect I think they thought I was odd and obnoxious but maybe sometimes a bit interesting?). The bad of this is that I wasn’t always very caring or kind as a child…because, again, I didn’t care what people thought.
[Empathy is certainly something I do have, sometimes to a painful degree, but it was not always properly connected to the way I interacted with people. I was SO oblivious to social interaction/protocols/etc.]
This type of rebel is kind of a chaotic neutral. They are not often lowered by societies negative pressures, but neither can they be improved by its positive ones.
In the Vichy France example, what the type 2 rebel does depends almost entirely upon whatever core convictions they have come to hold at the outset, and any basic observation and analysis that follows. If the type 2 reveres power and force, and finds it philosophically potent, they may go to the Germans. If they have convictions towards kindness and justice and freedom or the sovereignty of nations, well, to the resistance instantly. But you won’t be able to convince them of anything with peer pressure, or even threat of death or ostracization. Whether they are dead right or dead wrong, they are going to have to figure that out almost entirely on their own. They can listen to rational arguments, but it may take them a long time (months, years) to process, parse, and internalize it.
The Principled Rebel, AKA the Non-Rebel Rebel (Type 3):
This is the one I would hope to be regardless of personality. I say this because the above two types are about explicitly one’s nature, and this is entirely about one’s choice.
Type 3 might even be just the normal John or Jane Doe. They experience peer pressure, and are sometimes compelled by it. They want to live a normal life, maybe even the most stereotypical domestic life, and they usually want their friends and neighbors to like them. They don’t feel the need to stand out or make a statement, and they are quite aware of their social surroundings and sensitive to them.
They are not sheep or anything, but they do not see themselves as (type 1) fighting against society or (type 2) outside society. It may even be 100% against their nature to make a fuss, or rock the boat. They may be the most acquiescing person you ever meet as regards normal, day-to-day things.
But when it comes to something really, really valuable, they are able to go COMPLETELY against their nature and against their desire for peace or ease or comfort, and rebel against something that’s decidedly wrong but very powerful.
The Classic Rebel may fight against Vichy France because they instinctively like fighting.
The Accidental Rebel may fight against Vichy France because they do not fear death, isolation, or slander.
But the Principled Rebel has nothing in their nature to inspire them to rebel except…principle. Their conviction has to grab their own nature by the shirt collar and force it to do what it doesn’t want to do, just because it’s right.
I like that. That’s a kind of rebellion I admire.