The Humanity of the Rebel

The love of violence is, to me, the ancient and symbolic gesture of man against the constraints of society. Vicious men can exploit the impulse, but it is a disaster to treat the impulse as vicious. For no society is strong which does not acknowledge the protesting man; and no man is human who does not draw strength from the natural animal.

Jacob Bronowski from The Face of Violence.

I love the insights of Rollo May and I recommend his books to you. Below are some of his thoughts on the rebel in his book, Power and Innocence.

What is the central element that constitutes the human being?

It is the capacity to sense injustice and take a stand against it in the form of I-will-be-destroyed-rather-than-submit. It is a rudimentary anger, a capacity to muster all one’s power and assert it against what one experiences as unfair. However it may be confounded or covered up or counterfeited, this elemental capacity to fight against injustice remains the distinguishing characteristic of human beings. It is, in short, the capacity to rebel.

In the present day, when multitudes of people are caught in anxiety and helplessness, they tend psychologically to freeze up and to cast out of the city walls whoever would disturb their pretended peace. Ironically, it is during just those periods of transition when they most need the replenishing that the rebel can give them that people have the greatest block in listening to him.

The rebel is “one who opposes authority or restraint: one who breaks with established custom or tradition.” His distinguishing characteristic is his perpetual restlessness. He seeks above all an internal change, a change in the attitudes, emotions, and outlook of the people to whom he is devoted. He often seems to be temperamentally unable to accept success and the easy it brings; he kicks against the pricks, and when one frontier is conquered, he soon becomes ill-at-easy and pushes on to the new frontier. He is drawn to the unquiet minds and spirits, for he shares their everlasting inability to accept stultifying controls. No matter how much the rebel gives the appearance of being egocentric or of being on an “ego trip,” this is a delusion; inwardly the authentic rebel is anything but brash.

He rebels for the sake of a vision of life and society which he is convinced is critically important for himself and his fellows. Every act of rebellion tacitly presupposes some value. The rebel does not seek power as an end and has little facility for using it; he tends to share his power. The rebel fights not only for the relief of his fellow men but also for his personal integrity.

The humanity of the rebel lies in the fact that civilization rises from his deeds. The function of the rebel is to shake the fixated mores, and the rigid order of civilization; and this shaking, through painful, is necessary if the society is to be saved from boredom and apathy. Civilization gets its first flower from the rebel.

The rebel insists that his identity be respected; he fights to preserve his intellectual and spiritual integrity against the suppressive demands of his society. He must range himself against the group which represents to him conformism, adjustment, and the death of his own originality and voice.

The rebel rises from the society, criticizes it, and aligns himself with those who are trying to reform it; and all the while he is a member of the very culture he opposes.

The rebel is continually struggling to make the society into a community. In our particular day, the rebel fights the mechanizing bureaucratic trends not because these in themselves are evil, but because they are the paramount modern channels for the dehumanizing of man, the stultifying loss of integrity, and the indignity of man.

For the rebel does what the rest of us would like to do but don’t dare. Through his rebellion the rebel saves us. Civilization needs the rebel.

I salute the rebels in our organizations, institutions, and communities for they are the energy of renewal and growth.

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