Rebels Without a Cause

How "you can't tell me what to do" became a rallying cry of both the left and the right - and what we might use instead.

(TW: COVID-19, anti-vaxxers, fascism)

These past few months, in my hometown, students have returned to university in-person for the first time since the pandemic started. They’ve been partying in the usual ways that students party, including massive gatherings that break local social distancing laws, and they seem angry at the police and school officials who are trying to get them to cut it out. (Meanwhile, the rest of the city is angry back at them, which doesn’t actually help.)

It makes me think of other people I've known who were angry at the requirement to mask, distance, lock down or get vaccinated. People who told me, in so many words, that they'd rather let people die than be told what to do.

I keep trying to understand what drives these people. There is misinformation being thrown around, of course. But misinformation only works when it's telling people what they want to hear. On a deeper level than any facts, people are being told that they have to do something unpleasant to keep their communities safe, and they're going no, you can't tell me what to do.

If you're used to medical abuse or abuse by the police, you are understandably not going to want to do what doctors or police tell you. But that doesn't explain what’s going on either, because a lot of the people having the strongest you can't tell me what to do reaction, marching in the streets to declare that they won't wear masks or having these giant, inflammatory parties, are reasonably safe and comfortable straight white guys.

It makes me think of the role ideas like rebellion and resistance play in the stories we tell. It makes me think of this Twitter thread from last year, about how so many of our popular books and films portray brave rebel heroes overthrowing an authoritarian state. Yet those books don't prepare us to recognize authoritarianism and oppression - or resistance to oppression - when we see it in real life.

Regardless of what rules we expect people to follow in real life, the heroes of our stories (and I’m speaking specifically of Western media, of course) are often plucky, young, not-too-marginalized people who can't stand being told what to do. They don't let themselves be told no about their desires and dreams. They are defined by their rebellious spirits and dislike of authority, even before they discover how to use that spirit to topple the villains.

It makes me think of how, when a teenager rolls their eyes and calls their parent a fascist, they're usually not accusing their parent of ultra-nationalism or organized brutality; they're usually complaining that their parent sets too many rules.

Don't get me wrong, authoritarianism is terrible, and it's on the rise everywhere. Quite a lot of the current rules that we have, even in democratic countries, do measurable harm - as do the ways that the rules are enforced. And sometimes an air of you can't tell me what to do is a response to being harmed this way, or fearing you'll be harmed, or seeing others harmed. Sometimes it gives us the necessary energy we need to protect each other.

But when I look at modern Western forms of authoritarianism, I’m struck by how they wrap themselves in that air of you can't tell me what to do. It fits them as deftly as it fits any ragtag set of anarchists.

I'll keep using my public platforms to spew hate, because you can't tell me what to do.

I'll keep running my business in a way that exploits and harms workers, while amassing endless wealth for myself, because you can't tell me what to do.

I'll keep discriminating, in my business or the public service I'm providing, against all the marginalized people I don't like, because you can't tell me what to do.

I'll keep ignoring public health needs and spreading a deadly disease, because you can't tell me what to do!

I'm not totally sure if I'm right about this, but it's something I keep thinking about.

We have such a natural admiration, here in the West, for people who declare that no one can tell them what to do. We're drawn to them even while they run thing in such a way as to make life more restrictive, more difficult, and more full of unjust rules. Even when the only people being freed from the rules are the wealthiest of the wealthy, and when they use that unrestricted state to make life more difficult for everyone else, so many of us still admire that state of being freed.

What if we, as writers, thought about rebellion a little bit differently?

What if we wrote stories of resistance to tyranny that weren't about this knee-jerk resistance to rules? What if the first thing we considered was the well-being of ourselves and people around us, especially the most vulnerable? What if our heroes were neither drab rule-followers, nor rebels for the sake of rebellion, but people who looked at the rules and the way they are enforced with thoughtful empathy, and who decided that the harm being done was unacceptable?

What would it look like to focus, less on rules good versus rules bad, but on that kind of discernment?

What would it look like for a story to focus on that kind of discernment so closely that it provides a kind of mental blueprint for how to do it - even if the problems being addressed and discerned, in the context of the story, were totally fictional?

Maybe you, dear readers, already have some favorite stories that do this! I would love to hear about them in the comments.