Youth rebellion, dissent and social change | Albert Bell

Unity |  A national critical mindset and effective political and media literacy are essential for meaningful dissent to foster. Our education system is pivotal to this effect

In his milestone paper Social Structure and Anomie, sociologist Robert K. Merton (1938) identified a number of reactions or adaptations to the discrepancy or strain between the success goals emblematic of middle-class American culture and the structured means or opportunities provided to achieve them. This discrepancy yields a social reality where many of those whose life chances are thwarted because of power differentials in society react to the embedded inequalities in society.

Mertonian sociologists such as Albert K. Cohen (1955) and Cloward and Ohlin (1960) talked about delinquent youth gangs as collective solutions to the status frustration that working-class boys experience through inaccessibility to middle-class success goals. Within the gang, made up of young people who share similar fates, conventional values and rules are overturned through a process of reaction formation. Subcultural status and capital is gained by the extent that subterranean and delinquent values are expressed and embodied by gang members.

However, interestingly, for Merton delinquent responses to social strain do not essentially register rupture with convention. Delinquents remain gridlocked in the race to achieve the American dream. Their deviation is not from established middle-class success goals. It is primarily from the legitimate opportunity structures that normative society provides to achieve them. This deviation takes the form of innovation, where while success goals such as financial wealth are still pursued, illegitimate means are adopted to reach them. A host of utilitarian crimes are examples to this effect, from theft to prostitution, drug and human trafficking and so forth.

Moreover, for Merton, such is the allure of the American dream that most people (even the underprivileged) still attempt to play the game so to speak, conforming to the status quo and following the rubric of convention devotedly. Canadian youth culture theorist Micheal Brake (2013) identifies ‘respectable youth’ painstakingly engrossed in building their prospects of educational achievement and heavily investing in budding professional careers as an emblematic in this regard.

Conformity and innovation are, however, only two of the myriad forms of adaptation to strain. Other adolescents and adults retreat and drop out of society completely, refuting conventional goals and participation in the accompanying normative opportunity structures. The deviance here is inward directed and non-utilitarian. Drug abuse, alcoholism, suicide and suicide ideation are evident examples of this. Ritualism, another reaction to social strain, presents us with a different scenario. Ritualists retain their immersion in the opportunity structure provided to achieve conventional goals. However, they simply do so out habit and routine rather than conviction. Success goals (such as career advancement) are refuted, but the route to them (gainful occupation, for example) is still dutifully pursued.

This brings us the final and perhaps most important adaptation to social strain, particularly in terms of its ramifications for social change. Rebellion. Here, both the established goals and the legitimate opportunity structures to achieve them are refuted, and replaced by new ones reflecting and advancing a different world view and vision. Brake (2013) asserts that young people active at the margins of the creative, artistic and political worlds epitomise cultural rebellion. The dissent such creatives register is key for social transformation and innovation. Consider for example the indelible and lasting global impact of 1960s counter-culture. Counter hegemonic, the Age of Aquarius rocked the status quo. Conservative ideas were challenged by a radically different world view that espoused inter alia minority and women’s rights and egalitarianism, peace and nuclear disarmament, sexual freedom, a post-human ecological outlook, and a world view espousing communalism, co-operation and democratisation. One can argue that eventually many vociferous voices from that time were emasculated and even co-opted by the system – such is the latter’s power to adapt and realign itself. However, the Flower Power movement’s impact across the globe on championing and mainstreaming ideas that were destined to remain at the margins cannot be disputed.

Post-independence Malta also opened up to the winds of an unparalleled sea change that saw power gradually yet decisively shift away from the conservative establishment. Young, radical creatives played a crucial role in the process. The first co-ed teen organisations of the 1960s and the radical writers and poets in the Moviment Qawmien Letterarju may be both considered as strong cases in point. Amidst the political turmoil of the 1980s, we had the important dissenting voices of Tan-Numri, Iż-Żgħażagħ ta’ Taħt l-Art and the student movement (amongst others) championing change, as did the multitude of uncompromising rock bands based at Tigné’s Rokarja and elsewhere.

The 1990s saw the rise of vociferous and effective environmental groups and today, we have a potent civil society (spurred by the ultimate price paid by Daphne Caruana Galizia) spearheaded by young dissenters who dare to dream of a better Malta. On the fringes of the literary and artistic world we have myriad forces expressing dissent while pursuing a DIY ethos away from the controlling hands of the State and market forces. Examples of this are evident even though several are still off the radar for many.

And it is in relation to this last observation that I wish to end this piece. Dissent is the anti-thesis of indifference and passivity. It is crucial for debate, effective dialogue and social innovation. It must be spurred, fostered and encouraged. A national critical mindset and effective political and media literacy are essential for meaningful dissent to foster. Our education system is pivotal to this effect. The State has the responsibility to nurture the space for such dissonance and critique, while ensuring that the autonomy and independence of dissenters remains intact. This is essential for the status quo to be continuously challenged and eroded.

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