The Systemic Crushing of Young Nonconformists and Anti-Authoritarians

“To be a hero,” says Philip Zimbardo in his talk The Psychology of Evil, “you have to learn to be a deviant, because you’re always going against the conformity of the group.” That’s true, and I think Zimbardo would agree that the heroism required to battle for liberty and justice in the face of tyranny and injustice requires a special kind deviancy and nonconformity. Martin Luther King, Jr. called it “creative maladjustment,” for which a heavy dose of anti-authoritarianism is required.

Anti-authoritarians question all authority and challenge and resist illegitimate authority. Americans should be concerned how our institutions are crushing young anti-authoritarians and preventing the rise of heroes.

Zimbardo wants to promote the “heroic imagination” in our children through our educational system with hero courses that he is developing. I believe that our young anti-authoritarians—our potential heroes—have far less of a need for hero courses in their schools than a need for help in battling against the systemic, authoritarian aspects of their schools.

George Orwell concluded that nothing crushes anti-authoritarianism and heroism more than overwhelming fear. And sadly, our educational system has created overwhelming fear with its “no child left behind,” “race to the top,” and standardized testing tyranny. These policies create fear in both students and teachers who are forced to focus on the demands of test creators. This kind of fear-based schooling crushes curiosity, critical thinking, questioning authority, and challenging and resisting illegitimate authority.

Young people have also been frightened by repeatedly hearing that they will be “losers” if they don’t attend college; while at the same time college attendees are saddled with crushing student-loan debt that can keep them from bucking a system for fear of finding themselves in an even deeper financial hole.

We should also worry that our young deviants, nonconformists, anti-authoritarians, and potential heroes are increasingly being referred to mental health professionals for treatment, which often consists of medication. In 1980, the American Psychiatric Association added to their diagnostic bible (then the DSM-3) “oppositional defiant disorder” (ODD). The official symptoms of ODD include: “often actively defies or refuses to comply with adult requests or rules,” and “often argues with adults.” Many of history’s greatest heroes would today be diagnosed as youngsters with ODD and other so-called “disruptive disorders.”

Heavily tranquilizing antipsychotic drugs (e.g. Zyprexa and Risperdal) are now the highest grossing class of medication in the United States ($18 billion in 2011). A major reason for this, according to the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2010, is that many children receiving antipsychotic drugs have nonpsychotic diagnoses such as ODD or some other disruptive disorder; this especially true of Medicaid-covered pediatric patients.

Ignacio Martin-Baró, a social psychologist in El Salvador and a champion of the oppressed, was ultimately assassinated by a U.S. trained Salvadoran death squad in 1989. One observation by Martin-Baró about U.S. psychology was that “in order to get social position and rank, it negotiated how it would contribute to the needs of the established power structure.”

Martin-Baró would not be surprised that for several years the American Psychological Association (APA) not only condoned but actually applauded psychologists’ assistance in interrogation/torture at Guantánamo and elsewhere. When it was discovered that psychologists were working with the U.S. military and the CIA to develop brutal interrogation methods, the APA assembled a task force in 2005 to examine the issue and concluded that psychologists were playing a “valuable and ethical role” in assisting the military. And in 2007, an APA Council of Representatives retained this policy by voting overwhelmingly to reject a measure that would have banned APA members from participating in abusive interrogation of detainees. It took until 2008 for the APA to overturn this policy. Philip Zimbardo is to be commended for being one of those psychologists who spoke out against this APA policy.

In every generation there will be authoritarians and anti-authoritarians. There will be power structures and authoritarian professionals who meet the needs of power structures to gain social position and rank. And there will be anti-authoritarians who refuse to meet the needs of power structures, and who often pay the price of marginalization for their resistance. Our young anti-authoritarians are now being systemically crushed by power structures and authoritarians, and we can all help them by battling the oppressive forces in their lives.

Bruce E. Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics and psychology intersect. His latest book is Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite. His Web site is

5 Responses

  1. Antony Brydon
    Antony Brydon April 1, 2013 at 11:26 am |

    Great article. I’d like to point out that one place anti-authoritarians are alive and often thriving is here in Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurs and investors tag team to challenge the status quo daily – not by accident, but as a core business.

    Companies like Uber, Sidecar, and GetAround build a better way to travel and challenge a $6B taxi and transportation industry. Startups like AirBnb challenge the hotel industry, LendingClub challenges the Big Banking, Kickstarter challenges the NEA, BitTorrent challenges Big Media, and Khan Academy and Coursera threaten 400 years of Big Education – essentially hacking Harvard. Heck, a company called AngelList offers startups the ability to crowdfund capital instead of pursuing venture capital. There are no sacred cows here.

    Here, diplomas are nice, but college dropouts are the prize.

    It’s admittedly tough. None of the entrenched interests give up without a fight. Uber is embroiled in lawsuits from taxi and livery commissions and threatened by local municipalities. Pandora is pressured by Washington as radio interests apply the pressure to rise online streaming royalty rates.

    Still, it’s not in vain. In the last 15 years, we’ve seen industries and institutions topple or fade – record labels, newspapers, radio, record stores, video rental, big box retailers.

    It’s exciting to think of what might be next.

  2. John B
    John B July 31, 2013 at 7:27 am |

    My 16-year-old son just dropped out of high school. I am of two minds about this. On the one hand, I support his rejection of the dreary educational system. On the other, I wonder what he will do with his life. He hates authority of any sort, but he does not have the sort of entrepreneurial drive that might lead him to run his own business successfully. Nor does he seem motivated to acquire the sort of skills (locksmithing, say) that would allow him to support himself as a part-time worker.

    If anybody has any advice on what I should encourage him to do, I would appreciate it.

  3. Nick Stuart
    Nick Stuart August 6, 2013 at 1:31 am |

    John B.
    Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Michael Dell and many more dropped out of college. Why can’t your son follow his own path in life with your full support. How many of us knew what we were going to do at 16 years old? See any of Sir Ken Robinson’s videos for a more balanced view of education. Good luck to your son.

  4. Robert
    Robert August 27, 2013 at 4:32 am |


    Excuse the long response. I’m going to be as thorough as I can, only because I wish that my parents would have taken this advice when I was your sons age.

    Your son is young. Be patient with him. Allow him to explore his interests. Allow him to be creative and follow his passions.

    Take him to Barnes and Noble and let him pick out some non-fiction books that he’s interested in.

    Get on and help him find some groups of people doing things that might be interesting to him.

    Research and explore some of these field that don’t require any sort of formal education:

    – robotics
    – 3-D printing
    – web development
    – computer programming
    – web design
    – music production
    – photography/videography

    I think I was similar to your son at that age. I was a highly creative and imaginative kid, and I felt completely stifled by the educational system. I was lucky to have (barely) graduated from high school. By 19 I had been kicked out of two universities.

    The entrepreneurial bug didn’t kick in for me until I was 19 years old. And it took until I turned 23 to actually learn enough on my own to make a living as an entrepreneur.

    My best advice:

    – Encourage your son: it takes a lot of will power to go against the grain. Don’t toughen that burden by being negative about this choice. Help provide him with the intellectual nourishment that he needs. examples of people who have achieved success.

    – Help him help himself: the skill of being able to educate yourself is the most valuable skill in the world. Supplement his education by buying him books,

    – Apprenticeship: once he has found something that he is interested in work hard to help him get a mentorship/apprenticeship with someone who has achieved some level of success in that field.

    – Encourage his entrepreneurship: let him know that EVENTUALLY he should start a business in whatever field he decides to pursue. If he has a talent: music, art, photograpahy, web development – he can make himself A LOT of money working for himself.

    I hope this helps John. If you’d like, you can reach me via email at rstevenson542 [at] gmail [dot] com. I’d be more than willing to help you.


  5. DIY
    DIY August 26, 2015 at 6:22 am |

    I am disappointed that the pursuit of capital is seen is as nonconformity. It’s not.

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