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.
I don’t know of any stories that do a good job modeling this, sorry. What it does make me think is that a lot of people don’t have a very good sense of boundaries, in the sense that they don’t understand how much responsibility they have for other people’s well being versus their own. Am I going to hurt people’s feelings if I refuse eye contact and don’t smile at them? Possibly yes, in some cases! Are people around me going to get sick and die if I don’t get vaccinated? Also possible! And those are very different situations with extremely different stakes, but as you said they both come down to “am I obligated to do this unpleasant thing for other people’s sakes?” And there’s a huge range of situations that fall between those two extremes. Even if you’re willing to allow that sometimes other’s wants and needs have priority over yours, and sometimes they don’t- and that’s more nuance than a lot of people will accept, in one direction or the other- it’s really hard to formulate a set of principles that can actually make a useful guide. Because I don’t think anyone really knows what they owe to others versus what they owe to themselves. I don’t even really think there are any good answers to that, even when people actually approach the question in good faith.
When does, “I don’t owe you this courtesy” cross over into “you owe it to me to just accept all the consequences of whatever I do?” I’m also thinking here of people who say terrible things and them claim that being canceled is an infringement of their rights.
I’m going to quit typing before I depress myself any more, but this is an important point.
TW Nazi mention
Yeah, I'm with Jay. As someone who was taught--indirectly & unintended but still taught--that having *no* boundaries was best--hello way too much emphasis on putting other ppl first & submitting to other ppl when I was a kid--and that's bee a HUGE problem for me as an adult. I feel guilty if I'm anything other than an absolute doormat who lets people walk all over me & unlearning that has been really hard.
Sidenote: I'm pretty for sure the ppl preaching the sermons were preaching to themselves, bc they tended to be super, my way or the highway/no one can tell me what to do, etc., about everything, but yeah.
IME it tends to be those sorts of ppl who simultaneously yell the loudest about, "but my freedom" re pandemic stuff while also insisting that--if they're in any position of authority at least--everyone else has to obey/submit to them w/out question esp if those ppl are expected to be in a position of deference--ie kids. Tl;dr: the parents who are all, you have to instantly obey me & all other authorities w/out question no matter what, are the same ppl--usually--yelling about government oppression via mask mandates, vaccine conspiracies, etc. IMO its bc they were parented the same way they're parenting their kids and they're trying to lay down boundaries now as adults and just messing it up, which doesn't make it any less infuriating to watch.
I also don't have any good examples of ppl doing this the right way, I think because, as you said, western culture has a weird relationship with boundaries and authority. I actually can kinda think of an example but its kind of controversial. Oskar Schindler, from Schindler's List fame, started out as a profiteer under the Nazis who got rich based off slave labor and eventually realized oh yikes this is Bad, actually, and rebelled because of that. I'd say Dr. King and other ppl in. the Civil Rights movement rebelled not out of a sense of you can't tell me what to do but bc they realized the rules in place were unfair. I'm not exactly sure how we emulate what they did, given what's been happening to protestors recently, but....yeah.
Also! I've seen this play out on social justice circles in social media too, where, you don't owe anyone emotional labor becomes you don't owe anyone anything, up to and including treating them like a fellow human being, if you believe they've done something to upset you, and, IMO I have a real problem with that. That may be bc I have anxiety and when ppl ghost me it can set that off, so seeing ppl say you don't owe anyone an explanation for ghosting them, for example, while I get it, just makes me feel like ppl can just leave me and never tell me why, and I'm expected to accept that and never know what it is I'm doing that's driving ppl away, and if I end up alone hat's bc I'm an innately terrible person who should just self reflect and figure it all out on my own, bc ppl can just draw accurate, single conclusions about their own behavior based on how other ppl react to them.
As an autistic person...I'm gonna draw conclusions all right but they're gonna be, I either did this wrong, or that wrong, or this other thing, idk maybe I said hi too often or asked about their day too much or gushed about my interests too much, idk which of the literally millions of possibilities it is, but can't ask bc they don't owe me. My only solution this is just to fawn bc otherwise I'm destined to be a terrible person.
I feel like personally, for an autistic person who doesn't naturally pick up on things, that just leads to hell, bc I feel like the assumption is the person will eventually figure it out on their own and like.....idk I don't think that's true, and I kinda think that we shouldn't just default to, no one owes anyone anything, bc tbh look where that attitude has gotten us re pandemic. If no one owes anyone anything, then why should ppl give up their personal comfort for someone else? iMO that's an example of a statement that started out good and ended up causing massive problems. I think I kinda detracted from the original point but those are my thoughts.