Two Types of Rebellion, Part Two: Acceptable Disobedience and Unacceptable Obedience


It’s well known that you can gum up a bureaucracy by following all the rules perfectly, literally,  and inflexibly. It’s even been used as a tactic of protest. 

You can also push back against a social system by taking the expectations TOO literally, like actually openly choosing virginity, which is what the churches preach and the schools encourage,  but no one much expects teens to actually do. 

But real pushback against expectations comes with the near certainty of real abuse and ostracization. 

Taking the rules too seriously really didn’t cost me much: I’d been socially awkward since early childhood and had no popularity to hoard or squander. I had no game, and would probably have been just as virginal had I tried to “get some.” 

The few close friends I had were mostly on the same page and were geeks and nerds enough to bond together regardless of any differences we had.

And high schoolers never drink good alcohol. Skipping cheap beer and liquor (and the associated hangover) is no loss.

Waiting for good wine and single-malt scotch was surely worth it. You can read that as a metaphor for the other things I skipped in high school, if you’d like. 

But gay and transgender teens with much greater social skills than I have literally faced death just for admitting to who they are. And it still happens sometimes. 

Those who don’t face violence still often face rejection, even from family. They often face cruelty,  discrimination, misgendering,  and a cavalcade of ignorant, invasive questions from people who should know how to mind their own business. 

And they’re often not even intentionally rebelling. Their mere existence is an affront to the system. 

Often, as a nerd, I wondered how the system could tell us to do all these things:  get good grades, say no to drugs and alcohol, remain sexually abstinent, and then treat us so terribly.

I never understood the point of the rules, which is to enforce conformity and consumerism, nor how vital a role acceptable disobedience plays.

In short, I didn’t understand anything about the social structure,  and I certainly didn’t understand real resistance. 

And I had no idea what real outsiders faced. 

Book sense I had in spades … common sense, not so much.

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Two Types of Rebellion, Part One: Unwitting Servants

Reading Kester Brewin’s Mutiny and reflecting on rebels I have known in my life,  I’ve come to believe that there are two types of rebels, at least in recent American society: 

  • Those whose rebellion supports the social structure
  • Those whose rebellion actually threatens the established order 

We’ll talk about the first group,  the rebels whose actions prop up the culture they’re rebelling against, today.  The second group will have to wait. 

The first group of rebels skips class, drinks,  has lots of sex in high school, drives too fast, plays a little dirty in business deals, keeps a “woman on the side, ” etc.

They may be reckless, selfish, irreverent, even criminal,  but they do it in normal, understandable ways. 

They uphold the power structure, even as they outwardly flout it. 

Occasionally one of them has to be punished to keep up the illusion that their rebellion is unacceptable, but it’s usually a woman (Martha Stewart or the girl who gets pregnant in high school), or the punishment is usually nominal (most white collar criminals,  Brock Turner). 

They typically “sow their wild oats” and then “grow out of it,” or else “bend the rules” or “play the system.”

They’re a necessary part of the system, though few of them would admit it.

Their rebellions serve as a pressure valve in the social system, just as their occasional scapegoating punishment serves to pacify and sanctify the self-righteous anger of the common people who live by the rules and are upset to see the cheaters prosper. 

Their rebellious acts are safely within the respectable, heteronormative, generally white male dominated traditional culture. 

Some of these acts are so common they’re not even rebellious any more, but almost expected. An “out and proud virgin” is more transgressive than the typical “having sex and hiding the fact from their parents” high schooler. 

Of course,  neither is nearly as transgressive (or likely to receive abuse) as an out LGBT+ teen, but we’ll talk about actual challenges to the social order later. 

I think Rush sum up the frustrations of a nerdy, studious kid watching the almost Huxleyan acceptable deviations of high school perfectly in one music video: