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The Culture of Rebellion

A culture of rebellion is a culture in which almost any act of rebellion is encouraged and sometimes even lionized, while conduct that follows the traditional values that are being rebelled against are demeaned. A culture of rebellion has no real substance, since its values are not based on ancient wisdom or on scientific research, but on a strong urge to rebel which stems from unresolved angers.

Throughout history various cultures have gone through a revolutionary phase. Sometimes these phases manifested themselves as actual militant rebellions, such as the French Revolution. Sometimes they manifested themselves in religious rebellions, such as happened during the Reformation in Europe when Protestants broke away from Catholicism; or the Spanish Inquisition, in which thousands of “heathens” were burned at the stake. Sometimes the rebellions were forged by political movements such as the Communist movement in Russia, which murdered of millions; the Nazi movement in Germany which exterminated millions of Jews; or the Cultural Revolution in China, when people rebelled against all old traditions, knocking down anybody who was rich and overturning historical pagodas that decorated the hills of China.

There are many differences in the shapes and ideologies of rebellions, since all rebellions have to do with the predominant values of an era. However, there are also many similarities.

One similarity of all cultural revolutions is that while each rebellion begins by touting reasonable ideas such as “equality,” “power to the people,” “down with slavery” and “human rights,” yet each ends up becoming corrupt with power and forcing its values on the populace either through might, coercion and indoctrination. Rebels are not interested in democracy, freedom of speech, or a “live and let live” policy of human interaction. For rebels, it is “my way or the highway.” Hysteria fuels the culture at that point and the quality of life is full of stress.

In contrast, a healthy culture does not force its values on people, but rather values come into being through a process of sober thought and constructive dialogues among the people. A healthy society is a unified society that creates values that benefit all people. The quality of life for all is good.

The seeds of cultural revolutions lie in unresolved angers and frustrations of some factions of the populace. No culture can please everyone, and sometimes the factions of people who are frustrated by a culture’s values are too angry to engage in peaceful and constructive dialogues. Sometimes the mainstream culture is also not willing to engage in a dialogue, and so the rebellion is understandable. But a culture of rebellion, even though its immediate goal is to overturn a tyrannical culture (or a culture viewed as tyrannical) will invariably come to a destructive end. It will go from being liberal to radical liberal. The anger that seeded the movement will be expressed in a need not just to rebel against the standing culture, but also to dominate it and control it. Also, there will be a need, fueled by the inner core of unresolved anger, to find scapegoats for that anger. In a rebellious culture, there will always be top dogs and under dogs. Those who are part of the rebellion will be idealized, and those who are not will be demonized.

A healthy culture might begin with a rebellion of somewhat reasonable people against a regime viewed as tyrannical, as happened in America when the American people rebelled against Britain. The early Americans set up what they hoped would be a democratic culture in which there would be free speech, respect for all, and the freedom for all to pursue life, liberty and happiness. However, history shows that even through cultures may be healthy for a while, the idealistic values that shaped them in the beginning start to decline over time. The anger that fueled the rebellion can eventually overwhelm the democratic idealism and split the culture into factions. Beneath the anger is a will to power, which may be an inevitable human tendency.

W. B. Yeats, captured the essence of rebellion in his poem, “The Second Coming”:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Eventually a rebellion takes people to the place described above. Nobody is listening to anyone anymore. When Mommy and Daddy have become selfish and power-mad, they no longer listen to their children. When a culture has become divided and power-mad, the factions no longer engage in constructive dialogue. And they no longer listen to reasonable people who wish merely to unite the factions. Each side thinks its side is entirely on the high scale of goodness and the other side is on the low scale of evil. In fact, it is usually the case that neither side is all good or all bad.

Sigmund Freud discovered the unconscious and was quickly dismissed as misguided. The more a culture slides into a cultural revolution, the more its unconscious forces take hold. The more its unconscious forces take hold, the more it will veer out of control and be unwilling to listen to outsiders.

However, just like everything in the world and perhaps in the universe, cultures of rebellion are finite. They have a beginning and an end. The Cultural Revolution in China had a beginning and an end, as did the Reformation and the Spanish Inquisition. Culture keeps on changing and the earth keeps circling the sun. However, today humankind’s unconscious rebellious forces seem to be more and more in control, putting in jeopardy not only our own culture but also all cultures and the survival of humanity.

The Culture of Rebellion

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D.

Gerald Schoenewolf, Ph.D. is a licensed psychoanalyst in New York and has been practicing for over 37 years. He works with adults, couples, families, adolescents, and children. He has graduated from three psychotherapy institutes and received a Certificate in Psychoanalysis from the Washington Square Institute in 1981. He has been an Adjunct Assistant Professor of psychology at the Borough of Manhattan Community College since 2002 and has authored thirteen books on psychotherapy and psychoanalysis as well as four novels and a book of poems and drawings. More recently he wrote 20 screenplays (winning four first-place awards at festivals) and produced and directed two feature films.

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APA Reference
Schoenewolf, G. (2017). The Culture of Rebellion. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 10, 2018, from


Last updated: 12 Nov 2017
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 12 Nov 2017
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