Role Models of Defiance

Today, it is again the fifth of November. A day during which I like to consider my place in society and society's place within myself. In previous years, I've used this day to prompt discussions regarding privacy, surveillance, control, and even a bit about setting boundaries. This year, I'd like to discuss the importance of questioning established systems.

I've written before about the costs and concepts of tradition and complacency before, emphasizing the benefits of critical thinking and asking "Why?".
You would not devour a meal before minimally evaluating its edibility, therefore I also encourage you to carefully consider what intellectually digest before you risk poisoning your reason and wisdom.
The same sentiments can be applied toward establishments of authority and organization. In fact, a number of psychological studies imply the challenges encountered when one does not have a healthy counter-balance for authority. One particularly famous (or infamous) study is the Milgram experiment [Wikipedia]. In these studies, Yale psychologist Stanley Milgram measured an individual's willingness to obey the orders of an external authority and inflict perceived harm upon another person, even as inflicted that harm was contrary to their personal ethic. (Hank Green does a great job of summarizing this experiment in "Social Influence: Crash Course Psychology #38" [YouTube])

Of the results summarized by Hank, one significantly caught my attention: "Subjects are more likely to comply with orders if they didn't see anyone else disobeying, no role models of defiance." (You'll notice that it was Hank's words within that video which inspired this article's title and prompted its contents.) When I first heard those words a couple years ago, the gears began turning in my mind. What does it mean to be a "role model of defiance"? Do we have any or many in our society which stand in such a role?

(Please read footnote 1 regarding this image.)

To answer that first question "What does it mean to be a role model of defiance?", consider the image above. A role model of defiance is someone who stands up in the face of adversity, someone who senses something wrong with the system and rises to their feet. That first person finds the internal strength from their own ethics. Witnessing that strength of character, others also rise to their feet. It is that first act of defiance, the first voice that speaks out, which bolsters those who do not yet have the strength within to stand alone.

With that definition in mind, we can now search our history and mythos to discover some examples of role models of defiance. We find them often and throughout many stories, both fiction and reality. In recent fiction, Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games) [Wikipedia] is an easy example. Her role in that story is literally that of a role model of defiance against a corrupt establishment. Further back in fiction, we find Romeo and Juliet [Wikipedia], arguably adolescent in their motivation, but still significant in their decision to stand up against the tradition of their fueding families. Another significant example can be seen as Winston Smith [Wikipedia], the main character found within George Orwell's novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. I'm on the fence in deciding if Winston is a tragic role model of defiance, in that the story ends with his internal defiance somewhat undefined. However, the story set the tone for many similar stories (including the aforementioned Hunger Games). George Orwell's dystopian story has become a fable of warning against the corruption of power and surveillance. In fact, the same themes seen in Orwell's writings can be found in the story surrounding a character whose visage has become a symbol for rebellion against the establishment: V in the graphic novel (and later film) V for Vendetta [Wikipedia]. I've described the Guy Fawkes mask wearing character in my first Guy Fawkes Day article, so I won't repeat it here. However, the cultural impact of the character and the Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of defiance allows us to transition smoothly from fiction to reality. The Guy Fawkes mask has become a symbol of anonymity. A common face which questions, without words, the corruption of established systems and the necessity of rights and liberties.

Photo by David Shankbone

"Ask me why I'm wearing a mask"
It is clearly an unfortunate state of affairs when one must protect their identity in order to feel free to speak their mind.
Years ago, I would wear an entire V costume to make a statement against corruption and invite the public to question the system. Questioning a system does not necessarily mean that the system is broken, rather it shows that the inquiring mind has the freedom to ask "Why?" and that the system has the strength and character to provide an answer.

Clearly there are those who protest injustice and corruption from a position of relative safety. Those who show their numbers in action, but fear personal retaliation from the subject(s) of their protest and so they keep their identity masked. However, there are others who have challenged the established systems without masks. These are the people whose internal strength of character withstands the onslaught of a damaged tradition/establishment/organization/idea. Thomas Paine [Wikipedia] penned writings which inspired the American rebels to stand against colonial injustice in 1776. Furthermore, his ideas of human rights have echoed through western civilization. Mahatma Gandhi [Wikipedia] defied with nonviolence and changed the political future of an entire country. His insistence on non-violent protest provided guidance and inspiration for one of Martin Luther King Jr. [Wikipedia]. King's nonviolent activism gave energy to the entire movement of Civil Rights within the United States of America. Pioneering that movement were Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks [Wikipedia], two individuals who stood against injustice by staying in their seats.

Years ago, I wore a V for Vendetta costume every November 5th. Soon after, I chose to dress in my usual clothes with only the addition of my Guy Fawkes mask. Since 2013, I no longer wear the mask. I dress formally, remain friendly and approachable, and carry my mask in hand. My appearance makes me approachable and the mask (and formal clothing) invites questions and compliments, those questions and compliments offer an opportunity for me to encourage conversationalists to feel empowered to ask "Why?" to know that they can stand and speak. I have said it again and again, fear is debilitating and that fear is haunting our establishment. It is imperative that we acknowledge our role models of defiance and that we seek to find the strength to become what the character V became, a "vestige of the vox populi" (a symbol of the public voice). Or, better still, we can strive to become what I will call a "vox discrimine" (a voice of critical thinking).

1 If you know who the artist is of this image, please let me know. I take attribution very seriously and I was disappointed that I was unable to find a reliable source as to this image's origin. Please inform me, the artist deserves to receive proper attribution and credit.
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