Harnessing your inner rebel to bring about change13 min read

Rebellion and the spirit of the great refusal

Every day, people around the world decide to make changes in their lives.  Whatever the reason, we finally decide enough’s enough – it’s time for change.   Saying it’s easy.  Making it happen?  Not always so.  That’s when we call on our friends and allies – and sometimes that includes internal allies like the Inner Rebel, standing alongside and encouraging us in the spirit of the Great Refusal.

The Great Refusal

Whenever we act against an injustice or push against a stifling restraint, chances are we’re embodying the spirit of the Great Refusal⁠1.  It’s an idea that first appeared in Dante’s Inferno before being reinterpreted by the early 20th century philosopher of process Alfred North Whitehead⁠2 and, later still, by Herbert Marcuse, philosopher of liberation and a significant inspiration behind the radicalism of the 1960s⁠3.

Whitehead saw the Great Refusal as a refusal to accept things as they are and to instead strive towards an imagined ideal.  Marcuse went further, arguing that the Great Refusal points to an underlying emancipatory impulse towards freedom that appears and reappears throughout human history⁠4.

The Great Refusal in action

For Marcuse, the Great Refusal appears in the Creole slave rebellion of 1841⁠5 and the British suffragettes’ demand for political representation, the wave of anti-colonial liberation struggles that swept across the global south following the second world war and in Martin Luther King Jr’s I have a dream speech.  It’s there, if you look carefully, in the emergence of the waltz as a dance of rebellion in 17th century Vienna, the Parisienne uprising of May 1968, and the Stonewall riots in Greenwich Village, New York City in 1969.

The Great Refusal was arguably the midwife of Greenpeace and Extinction Rebellion, and prompted Czechoslovakia’s Prague Springand the tearing down of the Berlin Wall7.  And it appears, time and again, in philosophy and the arts:  in Hegel’s philosophy of freedom, the subversive undercurrent running through European fairy tales⁠8, in Romanticism’s elemental rising against the inhumanity of early industrial capitalism, and in surrealism’s hope for transforming existence.  We see it also in punk’s youthful rebellion against stifling conformity and, of course, what’s Star Wars and the rebellion against the Evil Empire if not the Great Refusal in action?

The Great Refusal is a cry of freedom in the face of oppression and injustice.  Put best by a Stonewall participant, it’s not about overthrowing governments but it’s instead an internal rebellion driven by a desire for freedom.  And it’s this very same spirit of rebellion, this emancipatory impulse, this refusal to accept things as they are that often prompts us to seek-out therapy or make changes in our lives.  But sometimes we need a little help – and our Inner Rebel can be a key ally.

Erich Fromm and the art of constructive disobedience

Erich Fromm was an influential but now largely forgotten psychologist who wrote extensively on love, freedom, and belonging.  Fromm was also a strong advocate for constructive disobedience.  While obedience is typically seen as a virtue and disobedience a vice, Fromm argued that saying no to power actually offers a genuine path to freedom – and the means for cultivating an authentic sense of self.  But what does constructive disobedience mean and when does it begin?

By the time we hit adolescence, most of us will have embarked upon a process of individuation. It’s a critical stage of development that sees us challenge parental authority and begin to explore new ideas, values, and identities – to cultivate a personal sense of identity, a sense that this is who I am!  Throughout this time, constructive disobedience is a key activity.

Obedience and disobedience – it’s not just good and bad

If we don’t challenge parental authority and simply conform to our parents’ attitudes and values or to broader social conventions – or if we’re in some way constrained or restrained, inhibited or prohibited – then we never cultivate our own sense of an authentic self.  We become obedient and compliant, and live a life structured by other people’s demands and imperatives.

On the other hand, disagreeing with everything and rebelling for the sake of it is just destructive.  We throw the baby out with the bathwater – then throw the bath out of the window for good measure.  There’s no freedom in opposing everything on principle – it just resembles child-like petulance and affirms nothing about what we want, only what we don’t.

Constructive disobedience has a completely different quality.  Instead of reacting, constructive disobedience is a more reflective refusal of external authority – say a parent, a teacher, an institution or a social convention – in order to obey one’s own conscience, own’s one internal authority.  This is what I believe or think or want – and I say no to that in order to say yes to this.  It’s through constructive disobedience that we come to affirm what we value, what we believe, what matters to us, and how we feel.  And all of this is crucial in becoming a person.

And, although it might be preferable to do all of this when we’re still teenagers, it’s never too late to engage in a little constructive disobedience and enjoy some transformative self-renewal.

Overcoming tyranny

Okay, tyranny might sound a tad dramatic.  But many of us do grow up in homes where obedience is demanded and disobedience is sanctioned with punishment – from seemingly benign looks of disapproval and the withdrawal of love to actual violence and coercive control, and points in between.

And outside the family home, we may find ourselves living in an unwelcoming and even hostile environment⁠9 by virtue of our gender, race, or any other factor that marks us out as Other.  Whether home is a sanctuary or not, a hostile environment is not the kind of setting that lends itself to constructive disobedience and the kind of individuation that leads to an authentic sense of personal identity⁠10.  This can even operate at the level of embodiment.  Although things may have changed now, phenomenologist Iris Marion Young wrote in the 1980s about how girls tended to throw balls underarm in contrast to boys, who throw balls overarm.  There are no bio-mechanical differences to explain this – boys can simply throw freely while girls have been taught to conceal their bodies and so not hold their chests wide open when throwing⁠11.

Internal oppression

Together with this, we also carry within us an internalised version of our parents and other authority figures that continue to function as an internalised authority figure, even when we’re long into adulthood⁠12.  This means we’re often faced with both external and internalised authority figures that might disapprove of us, and of our wants, beliefs and desires.  For some of us, this will be fairly benign and barely noticeable; but, for others, it can significantly undermine our self-esteem, our ability to form close relationships, and our capacity to validate our own experience, while inhibiting our personal agency and our lived experience of freedom.  And all of this can lead to the kind of experiences we label depression and anxiety (I’ve written more about this here).

This is often where the spirit of the Great Refusal comes alive, when we recognise the lives we’re living are no longer enough and we decide – enough is enough!  We recognise a desire to be increasingly free and self-determining, an emancipatory impulse, and only we can make change happen.

This is where our Inner Rebel comes into play.

Embracing your Inner Rebel

It might sound a bit strange to read about Inner Rebels – just what is this thing?  We’ve traditionally thought of the ‘self’ as a single, unitary ‘me’ that’s aware of myself and speaks in the first person.  And yet this is hopelessly inaccurate.  It turns out that we all have multiple selves or different elements of self that are active at any given moment⁠13.  If you’ve ever heard yourself having an internal dialogue, it’s likely different elements of your self were communicating.⁠14  And there’s nothing strange in this – in fact, internal dialogue has long been identified as a success factor in decision-making.  It’s better to reflect internally on a choice than just going ahead and doing it without prior consideration.  And this is how your Inner Rebel can be an effective ally.

Some people advocate swearing, being selfish, slacking off, and getting angry as a way to unleash the Inner Rebel, but this all sounds like the petulant teenager throwing the bathtub from the window that we encountered earlier.  Dropping an f-bomb isn’t going to set you free, although you might revel in the shockwaves, while being a selfish, angry lazypants probably won’t accomplish much either.  Go for it, it might even provide some light relief – but don’t expect any major changes.

Don’t be sensible – be smart

Instead of acting out, our goal in embracing our Inner Rebel is to find an advocate to stand alongside us as we refuse those external rules that limit us and affirm the things that matter to us.  Remember the Stonewall guy – it’s all about internal rebellion.  And these internal rebellions don’t need to be huge -although they might be – and you don’t need to do it alone, although sometimes you will.  But your Inner Rebel is the part of you that’s going to back you up, encourage you to push on through, to say no to the things you don’t want and to say yes – damn straight! – to the things that matter to you.  I can say no to that in order to say yes to this, but it’ll likely be much easier to carry things through if I have someone by my side – even if that’s only metaphorically by my side.

Connecting with your Inner Rebel

You Inner Rebel might be immediately accessible, that part of you that encourages you to break the rules and try new things – if so, you’ll want to consult with her or him when you challenge yourself to make changes.  If you’re Inner Rebel is a mere shadow or maybe not even that, you’ll want to make his or her acquaintance.  You’ll want to flesh it out a little with a sense of temperament, style and appearance, values and maybe even a nickname for your newfound ally.  Whatever happens, you can be assured – we all have the power within us to make changes in our lives.  And a little constructive disobedience can go a very long way…


1 To be crystal clear, the Great Refusal is a Romantic idea – more Byron than Mills & Boon – that describes an emancipatory impulse towards freedom. Some, like historian George Katsiafikas, treat the Great Refusal as if it were a thing that catalyses human history (‘the revolt of eros’).  This is, I believe, a nonsense.

2 Whitehead stands out as an early proponent of process ontology, a branch of metaphysics that sees reality as predominantly process-like (rivers flow, ice melts, water boils, people live) in contrast to the more traditional substance ontology that instead sees reality as a jumble of static and unconnected objects (this cat sitting on that mat)

3  Marcuse, a member of the Frankfurt School until its return to Germany from self-imposed exile with the downfall of Nazism, was a highly influential philosopher and cultural theorist in the mid-twentieth century. Influenced by Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx and phenomenologist Edmund Husserl, Marcuse was a scathing critic of Soviet Communism (he wrote the savagely critical book Soviet Marxism and worked as Central Europe Section Chief at the US State Department when the Cold War began to unfold) and of Nazism (from which he fled as part of a widespread Jewish exodus from Nazi Germany).  But Marcuse was also deeply critical of American consumer capitalism and believed it diverted people from their true needs towards an acquisitive desire based on manufactured needs.  In the context of the twin tyrannies of Communism and Nazism, Marcuse’s project was one of liberation and emancipation.  There really is much to criticise in Marcuse’s work – but it also offers extremely useful insights.

4 This isn’t the childlike and self-centred freedom beloved of libertarians and classical liberals, but a form of freedom that is culturally-contextualised and thereby mindful of both self and other.  I’ll write more – it’s on my to do list!

5 The most successful (of many) slave rebellions in the Americas, the Creole Rebellion saw more than 100 captives gain their freedom.

6 The Prague Spring of 1968 was a liberalising tendency in Communist Czechoslovakia, a hope to create ‘socialism with a human face’.  Within months, it was crushed by the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies.

7 The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 saw the beginning of the collapse of communism across Europe and the growing reunification of Europe.  It’s worth remembering that the Berlin Wall didn’t just fall down – it was torn down!

Jack Zipes’ Fairy Tales and the Art of Subversion is a key work on this subject.

Sometimes this will be the result of government policy.

10 This is admittedly a bit black and white – family home’s are rarely absolute tyrannies and there’s typically some room for constructive personal development, even when severely constrained.

11 Iris Marion Young has written extensively on ‘the breasted experience’, on having breasts in a male-dominated patriarchal society.  As she writes, ‘A woman’s chest, much more than a man’s, is in question in this society, up for judgment, and whatever the verdict, she has not escaped the condition of being problematic’.  From Drew Leder (ed.), The Body in Medical Thought and Practice (1992).

12 Freud called this the super-ego, while object relations theorists refer to it as an internal object.  Transactional Analysis developed these ideas into the Parent Adult Child ego state model, which illustrates how we internalise parental figures’ disciplinarian and nurturing qualities while also retaining childhood characteristics of both the free and playful and the fearful and obedient varieties (I’ll write about this in a forthcoming article).

Meanwhile, Michel Foucault (biopolitics) and Pierre Bourdieu (the habitus) are among those who theorise how we internalise the social and cultural dimension of our lives, another of element of internalised control.

13 Psychologist Mick Cooper argues that we all have multiple selves, while his colleague Dave Mearns describes how we all have a plurality of self-elements that rotate around into different configurations (configurations of self) in different situations, with different people and under different conditions.  Transactional Analysis, as we’ve seen above, presents the Parent Adult Child model, which also offers a compelling account where different elements of self come alive under different conditions.

14 Another prominent internal ‘actor’ is the Inner Critic – but that’s for another day!

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