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ChangingMinds Blog! > Blog Archive > 10-Mar-19


Sunday 10-March-19

Can rebels ever succeed? It's not as easy as it might seem

Have you ever been a rebel? Have you railed against the status quo? Have you ever complained bitterly about how unfair it all is? Most of us have at some time in our lives, at minimum in our teenage years when our genes were urging us to leave the parental nest and create our own life, free from all those constricting rules.

While most of us eventually learn that being a good, lawful citizen is the easiest route, some continue pushing. To rebel is to turn against something, a rule, value, person, society. This is often because rebels prioritise differently, for example putting animal rights or some other cause above even the law.

We often rebel simply against what we feel as oppressive authority, from government to management. What really is happening here is that we feel our sense of control challenged. When we are unable to publicly rebel, we may stoop to displacement, passive aggression or subtle revenge. We may find succor in social moaning and gossip. Occasionally, we may even collaborate in open rebellion.

There is a question whether populist leaders are rebels. In some ways they may be, but more often they have alternative agendas (typically around power and greed) and act as rebels only to attract the support of disaffected others who would like to rebel but who otherwise feel they lack the ability to do so. Success for such leaders is eventual dictatorship, where rebellion is harshly quashed.

A paradoxical dilemma for rebels lies in success. Suppose you rebelled against national membership of a trading bloc. Then you succeed and the country leaves the bloc. What then? Initially you may feel euphoric, but as this fades, you may feel strangely empty. The purpose that drove your life and friendships is now done. Or you get sucked into the new order, presiding over the brave new world that you imagined for so long. This, too, may be difficult.

When we identify as rebels, success can strangely unsatisfying as we lose purpose or become the establishment we once reviled. Perhaps, then, a good rebel should try to fail so they can sustain their oppositional persona. Unsurprisingly, many do just this, typically by designing an unattainable challenge based on an extreme position, or otherwise throwing away chances when victory is within their grasp.

Rebels who truly want to effect change have to be more cunning. They need patience and the ability to make small, seemingly insignificant changes, but which add up to a more substantial effect. They need to appear to be an insignificant threat until it isn't too late to stop them. They need to spread the word and embolden other rebels, tapping into widespread hidden unhappiness.

Rebellions are sometimes aggressive, vicious affairs as long-suppressed frustration meets an outraged elite in a desperate conflict. Sometimes they are velvet, as the establishment reads the writing on the wall and retreats to distant safety. And sometimes these former foes are truly persuaded, leading to easier, peaceful change.

And what then? Much change is easy in theory but contains hidden, lurking dangers. The expelled old guard may stir trouble and seek to return. The shadows of human nature may creep out as people seek influence and other gain. And fresh rebels may appear, with different ideal and ideals, biting the heels of the new order.

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