Starhawk on Rebellion

block-11-may-2016When we comply in our own punishment, the self knows and hates us for it. When we rebel, we feel, even for a moment, powerful and free.

But that freedom and power are false, for rebellion, unless it can transform itself into resistance, inevitably becomes self-destructive. When we rebel without challenging the framework of reality the system has constructed, we remain trapped. Our choices are predetermined for us…

When the system defines our choices, it channels rebellion into modes that it is prepared to control, into acts that harm the rebel, not the system. Prison guards know how to handle troublemakers; they are constantly on the alert for the belligerent, the instigator: such people can be quickly removed to serve as a warning to the rest. The schoolchild who rebels, refuses to study, harms her or his own future, not the educational system that functions, at least in part, as a winnowing device that removes those not temperamentally suited to obey from the tracks leading to the higher echelons of the hierarchy.

The culture of punishment also offers us channels for rebellion that destroy us slowly without challenging the power of the system at all. We can choose from a broad array of addictions that offer us the chance to rebel and administer our own punishment as a single act–for when we smoke, abuse alcohol or drugs, when we literally attack our own bodies with substances that harm us, we are affirming punishment’s essential message: “You have no inherent worth, you do not deserve to live.”

We find such addictions very hard to break because we identify them with being bad, rebellious, disobedient, unenslaved. The image sold to us by the media is that addictions represent freedom. They take us to Marlboro country, and we need to do something bad, for to be too good is to be dead. I had a cigarette: I’m bad (free); I denied myself a cigarette: I’m good (slave). We become addicted not just to the substance but to our failures to quit, which comfort us by confirming the existence of some small bit of the self that cannot be controlled.

But the badness of addiction does not buy us deeper, broader, more extended life. It too kills us, quickly or slowly. We enact upon ourselves the murder of the self, in our desperate attempt to keep alive some kernel of freedom…

Resistance differs from rebellion because it embodies a reality incongruent with that of domination. We do more than defy reality: we present its alternatives, communicating our beliefs and values.

Power-over is maintained by the belief that some people are more valuable than others. Its systems reflect distinctions in value. When we refuse to accept those distinctions, refuse to automatically assume our powerlessness, the smooth functioning of the systems of oppression is interrupted. Each interruption creates a small space, a rip in the fabric of oppression that has the potential to let another power come through…

To resist domination, we must act in ways that affirm value–even in our opponents.

~Starhawk, Truth or Dare: Encounters with Power, Authority, and Mystery (Harper & Row, 1987).


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