The Virtue of Defiance

Note to the reader: I just recovered from a flu, so in lieu of new material, and in honor of Henry David Thoreau’s birthday last Sunday, here is an essay I published on my own site earlier this year.

“No” is often treated as a bad word, especially when used by children. Many parents rue the day their child learned to say “no,” and they consider it the byword for the “backtalking” “problem child.”

Lately, child defiance has even been pathologized. “Official” psychiatry’s diagnostic manual now lists a “condition” called “Oppositional Defiant Disorder,” or “ODD.” ODD is defined as an “ongoing pattern of disobedient, hostile and defiant behavior,” and its symptoms include questioning authority, negativity, defiance, and argumentativeness.

It is suspiciously fitting that the establishment would choose a name for this “illness” whose acronym would spell the word, “odd,” since the state would love to have defiance be considered an abnormal personality trait: a “deviation” to be eliminated to create a totally conforming, compliant, and pliable citizenry. And its technocrats know that the most effective way to accomplish that is by nipping defiance and nonconformity in the bud during the malleable period of childhood. That has always been the managerial state’s policy toward children, and this ODD condition is perfectly consonant with it.

The Compliance Factories

Public schools are the most important part of this project. Schools are structured to inculcate strict obedience and reverence for authority in children. As the author and veteran teacher John Taylor Gatto put it:

“The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders.”

Every day of the schoolchild’s life is strictly regimented, with bells and assigned movements from one room/cell/pen to another, like in a prison or a factory farm. And with the advent of metal detectors, barred windows, isolation rooms, resource officers, security guards, and cops on campus, to add to their “institutional” architecture, public schools are looking more like prisons than ever.

Children who resist this regimentation, or defy the orders given them by teachers, principles, and other school authority figures, are punished with detention or extra work. They may even be given solitary confinement, or arrested and sent to juvenile hall. Students who are independently boisterous and vocal are also punished and frowned upon as “disruptive.” Rewards are meted out to “star students” who exceed their fellows in deference, obsequiousness, and the vigor with which they undertake their given assignments. Again Gatto:

“Grades don’t measure anything other than your relevant obedience to a manager.”

Such students who do not conform, and especially those who exhibit defiance, are liable to be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), as well, nowadays, as ODD, and then made to take psychotropic drugs that lobotomize their youthful spirit, replacing it with a “school appropriate” tractable torpor. As George Will has written:

“If 7-year-old Mozart tried composing his concertos today, he might be diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and medicated into barren normality.”

And if parents allow their child to not take the medications prescribed to them, they are potentially vulnerable to “medical kidnapping” by Child Protective Services.

The increasingly uniform curriculum also mass indoctrinates children into reverence for authority. Every day, they recite a pledge of submission. They are taught to adore authority figures such as police officers, and their classrooms are adorned with portraits of Presidents of the United States, with the most authoritarian and murderous ones given pride of place. The Federal government, with its three branches, is portrayed as an infinitely benevolent triune entity: a veritable savior-institution, and the culmination of world history.

In the realm of curriculum, defiance means dissent and the denial of textbook dogma. This too will not be tolerated. If the student does not at least mouth the imparted shibboleths, and refrain from challenging them, he will likely be flunked and held back.

Having a questioning attitude is even frowned upon over trivial matters. One of the earliest memories I still retain is walking up to my third grade teacher’s desk and pointing out to her that a worksheet read, “The food is ready to eat.” This struck me as wrong at the time, as it seemed to imply that it was the food that would be doing the eating. I asked whether it should read “ready to be eaten” instead. I distinctly remember the rotund bespectacled old lady scolding me, “Oh, don’t be so critical!” I have since endeavored to make my life and career in the world of ideas one long act of defiance against that early admonition.

The War on Dissent

If the public school factory ever spits out a “faulty” product; if a graduate manages to enter adulthood while still retaining a spirit of defiance, dissent, and independence, he still will not have escaped the state’s continuing efforts to crush that spirit.

For example, the state’s gatekeepers in media and academia stigmatize dissent, as does peer pressure imposed by the herd of standard-issue drones who emerged from the factory “properly” molded and “built to spec.” The defiance of certain dogmas (like that of climate change) has been so stigmatized in these ways, that the very word “denier” has become an epithet.

When stigmatization does not suffice, dissent is sometimes criminalized, especially for “national security” reasons, lest the “dangerous” dissenting ideas influence the rest of the herd. This has lately been occurring ever more frequently, as Glenn Greenwald relates in his article “With Power of Social Media Growing, Police Now Monitoring and Criminalizing Online Speech .”

And the Department of Homeland Security broadly defines likely-criminal “rightwing extremists” as individuals and groups, “that are mainly antigovernment, rejecting federal authority in favor of state or local authority, or rejecting government authority entirely.” This effectively “watchlists” entire schools of thought, include much of libertarianism and Constitutional federalism.

And when dissent cannot be sufficiently stigmatized or criminalized, it can be pathologized. For example, adults too can be diagnosed with ODD, the above-mentioned definition of which basically pathologizes libertarianism. And the anti-government views of many have been identified as clinical cases of paranoia. The state has used such diagnoses to squash dissent under the cover of “medicine” through psychiatric incarceration and “civil commitments” that generally involve forced medication with psychotropic drugs. Some high profile instances of this include the cases of Russ Tice, Adrian Schoolcraft, and Brandon Raub, all three of which have been recounted by John Whitehead at The Huffington Post.

As Whitehead also relates, this practice was widely used in the Soviet Union’s gulag system:

“The advent of psychiatry eliminated the need to exile political prisoners, allowing governments instead to declare such dissidents mentally ill and unfit for society. For example, government officials in the Cold War-era Soviet Union often used psychiatric hospitals as prisons in order to isolate political prisoners from the rest of society, discredit their ideas, and break them physically and mentally through the use of electric shocks, drugs and various medical procedures. Insisting that “ideas about a struggle for truth and justice are formed by personalities with a paranoid structure,” the psychiatric community actually went so far as to provide the government with a diagnosis suitable for locking up such freedom-oriented activists.”

And as anyone who has watched One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest can guess, the use of electric shock on the intransigent is not wholly unfamiliar to America.

Even outside the realm of incarceration, state-aligned psychiatrists are doping adults into a submissive stupor, and state-crony pharmaceutical companies are equipping them with ever more potent ways of doing so, bringing us perhaps closer to the day predicted by Aldous Huxley:

“There will be, in the next generation or so, a pharmacological method of making people love their servitude, and producing dictatorship without tears, so to speak, producing a kind of painless concentration camp for entire societies, so that people will in fact have their liberties taken away from them, but will rather enjoy it, because they will be distracted from any desire to rebel by propaganda or brainwashing, or brainwashing enhanced by pharmacological methods. And this seems to be the final revolution.”

The state also promotes submissive quiescence through Bread and Circuses: “bread” meaning the debilitating Standard American Diet, or SAD, and “circuses” meaning state-sponsored mass entertainment, including especially TV and spectator sports.

The War on Defiance

The state’s last resort for adults whose defiance was not sufficiently crushed in prison-like schools is to funnel such deviants into actual prisons. The US, for example, has its own Gulag Archipelago, into which it processes tens of thousands of non-violent offenders who dare defy its tyrannical drug prohibitions. Prison inmates are subjected to extreme regimentation and brutal exertions of dominance, including torture.

Torture is perhaps the state’s ultimate form of breaking the spirit of defiance, with its methods of imposing “learned helplessness” on its victims. To take an example from our gulags abroad, as revealed in a Senate torture report, the CIA’s chief of interrogations recommended medically unnecessary “rectal feeding” and “rectal hydration” as ways of exerting “total control over the detainee.”

The cops that put people into torture-and-rape prisons are particularly intolerant of defiance, and they are liable to put a “mundane” into the ground if they catch the slightest whiff of it. As this propensity has recently become hugely controversial, authoritarian cops have taken to the presses and airwaves to teach citizens a remedial lesson on the virtue of meek, prostrate, and total compliance.

For example, after 12-year old Tamir Rice was left to bleed to death by cops after one shot him upon seeing a toy gun, a police union rep sputtered on MSNBC: “How about this? Listen to police officers commands, listen to what we tell you, and just stop,” neglecting the fact that video evidence proved that the boy didn’t have time to follow any commands.

And after the Michael Brown shooting, a veteran cop wrote in The Washington Post:

“Even though it might sound harsh and impolitic, here is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you.”

Submissive Compliant Disorder

It is amazing that these cops seem to be giving the society they prey upon an amateur diagnosis of mass Oppositional Defiant Disorder. If anything, thanks to all of the state’s ministrations listed above, what our society suffers from is a bad case of what might be called Submissive Compliant Disorder, or SCD.

SCD is a sort of Stockholm Syndrome writ large. We have been brainwashed into identifying with and venerating our captors and overlords, which makes us far more cooperative with and pliable for them. But we don’t venerate our overlords as any specific persons. We have been indoctrinated into venerating the abstraction of authority—which entails both the authority of office and the authority of law—and by extension anyone draped in it.

This indoctrination has been so thorough, that otherwise proud and decent people will submit to the most abject indignities, and will comply with orders and edicts to commit the most horrible atrocities. And they will be troubled by neither, so long as the indignities and atrocities are committed under “color of authority” or “color of law.” This spiritual disorder is not a new development. Albert Jay Nock identified it in a story from his life he related in 1927:

“Once, I remember, I ran across the case of a boy who had been sentenced to prison, a poor, scared little brat, who had intended something no worse than mischief, and it turned out to be a crime. The judge said he disliked to sentence the lad; it seemed the wrong thing to do; but the law left him no option. I was struck by this. The judge, then, was doing something as an official that he would not dream of doing as a man; and he could do it without any sense of responsibility, or discomfort, simply because he was acting as an official and not as a man. On this principle of action, it seemed to me that one could commit almost any kind of crime without getting into trouble with one’s conscience.

Clearly, a great crime had been committed against this boy; yet nobody who had had a hand in it — the judge, the jury, the prosecutor, the complaining witness, the policemen and jailers — felt any responsibility about it, because they were not acting as men, but as officials. Clearly, too, the public did not regard them as criminals, but rather as upright and conscientious men.

The idea came to me then, vaguely but unmistakably, that if the primary intention of government was not to abolish crime but merely to monopolize crime, no better device could be found for doing it than the inculcation of precisely this frame of mind in the officials and in the public; for the effect of this was to exempt both from any allegiance to those sanctions of humanity or decency which anyone of either class, acting as an individual, would have felt himself bound to respect — nay, would have wished to respect. This idea was vague at the moment, as I say, and I did not work it out for some years, but I think I never quite lost track of it from that time.”

Submissive Compliant Disorder was vividly demonstrated in a laboratory setting in the Milgram Obedience Study in which ordinary Americans demonstrated a willingness to use electric shocks to torture and even kill innocent people if they were instructed to by an authority figure.

Another such demonstration was the Stanford Prison Experiment, in which ordinary Americans role playing as prison guards were willing to inflict psychological torture on others role playing as prisoners. Furthermore, the “prisoners” passively accepted the torture, and some even acted in defense of the torture of others.

Yet another extreme demonstration of Submissive Compliant Disorder occurred “in the wild,” with the McDonald’s strip search prank call, a real life event portrayed in the film Compliance. A McDonald’s assistant manager and her fiancé were willing to sexually humiliate and abuse a female worker, simply because a man on the phone who identified himself as a police officer instructed them to do so. This was only the most famous in a series of similar calls.

The “Submissive” part of SCD can be seen in the lines at TSA checkpoints, school registration offices, and voting booths. It could be seen in the World Trade Center on 9/11, when evacuating workers in the South Tower returned to their offices simply because the Port Authority told them to over the PA system. It could be seen when a whole crowd watched the NYPD murder Eric Garner and did nothing to intervene. Mostly, it can be seen in the bare fact that we let ourselves and our fellows be severely mulcted and brutalized every day by the state, and we don’t rouse ourselves from our dogmatic slumbers enough to even question whether an alternative arrangement can be made.

The “Compliance” part of SCD can be seen in the US torture dungeons, the Predator drone operator rooms, the special forces sniper perches, the SWAT ARVs, and anywhere else men are “just following orders” at the expense of the rights and lives of their fellow men. It can also be seen in the busybodies and snitches who pervade every community in this “nation of rats,” as George Carlin called it, and who readily call the trigger-happy authorities on anyone they don’t like who falls afoul of an arbitrary law. “Just complying with the law-didly-aw, neighbor!”

Defiance Means Liberty

We need to cure ourselves of Submissive Compliant Disorder. What our society needs is not less, but more opposition and defiance. Indeed, defiance is a virtue, and one of the most important.

“No,” after all, is a beautiful, and profoundly important word.

“No,” as in “No means No;” as in a human being’s absolute right to determine who has access to her body and when; and as in all other facets of the inalienable right to self-ownership.

“No,” as in “No Trespassing;” as in a human being’s absolute right to decide who has access to her property and when; and as in all other facets of the inviolable right to property.

Defiance means effective personal boundaries and property borders: in other words, liberty. It is no mere happenstance, after all, that the most famous living champion of liberty is nicknamed “Dr. No.”

Defiance is disobedience, as in civil disobedience, in the tradition of Henry David Thoreau, who defied his government’s demand for taxes, so as not to fund an immoral war. As Thoreau said, “Disobedience is the true foundation of liberty.” Grand gestures and movements of civil disobedience can marshall great public support for liberty, and thus induce a state to back down, lest it lose public legitimacy.

Defiance is also economic disobedience, in the tradition of John Hancock, who defied his government by flouting its import duties and smuggling glass, lead, paper, French molasses and tea. Such evasion has throughout history forced governments to allay and even abolish prohibitions and exactions, lest their precious laws become a mockery.

Defiance is also disobedience in the sense of the disobedience of the whistleblower (like Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning, etc) and of the tank operators who refuse to fire on their countrymen, and even turn their turrets, training them on their massacre-minded commanders instead.

Defiance is also righteous resistance, in the tradition of some aspects of the American Revolution and the Whiskey Rebellion, the latter of which, in spite of common misconception, was actually hugely successful .

More specifically, defiance means the sacred right to resist unjust arrest and expropriation.

Thus, defiance is #BundyRanch, Don’t Tread on Me, and Molon Labe.

But it is also #ItStopsToday (which, to truly honor Eric Garner, should have been far more viral than #ICantBreathe) and #BlackOpenCarry.

Defiance is the steady advance of the red line of potential resistance which, as I’ve argued, is the only way to peacefully and sustainably achieve liberty from the state. And of course defiance is dissent, which is necessary for the all-important libertarian educational project that is what causes that red line to move.

Defiance and Children

But as Confucius taught, repairing society must start with repairing the home. And this brings us back to the parent who hates it when her child defies her, saying, “No.” If we don’t want the next generation to be afflicted with Submissive Compliant Disorder, we cannot insist on their total submission and compliance as children. As L.R. Knost has said, speaking for the child in general:

“So you want me to grow into an adult who thinks for myself, acts independently, and stands by my choices, but while I’m a child you want me to be submissive, compliant, and pliable? I think we need to talk.”

Children learn by doing, and they learn what they do. Submissive-compliant rearing will yield submissive-compliant character as an adult. And then don’t be surprised when the next generation ends up just as submissive, compliant, and pliable to the state as they were to their parents growing up.

Children need practice saying “No” concerning person and property, and so they need the freedom to do so, even (or especially) to their parents. Children, like adults, need to be afforded liberty and property. (And of course, the bare minimum is to not push them into public schools, the horrible nature and function of which I outlined above.) For more on this, see my essay “Spencerian Parenting” and the Huffington Post article, “ The Reason Every Kid Should Talk to Their Parents .”


Defiance is not a disorder, or even a vice, but a virtue, and a necessary one for the achievement and defense of liberty. We have so little liberty now, largely because the virtue of defiance is so scarce. The first step to our own emancipation is to embrace the greatness of the little word “No.”

Also published at .

Dan Sanchez runs the Mises Academy e-learning program at the Mises Institute and is a columnist for Follow him via Twitter , Facebook , and TinyLetter .