I recently lost a close friend to cancer. We became friends as teenagers in the mid-1990s and went to high school and college together. Our upbringing couldn’t have been more different. I grew up in what would become Michele Bachmann country while he grew up in Wellstone country. My parents came to the U.S. from India in the 1970s and his family had been a part of the Twin Cities for generations. Despite these differences, we developed a common bond as students that came, in part, from a mutual appreciation of rebellion. In history class my friend loved topics about the protests of the 1960s, counterculture, and Vietnam while I was obsessed with Malcolm X and historical insurgences against colonization. We were very close to the point where my parents would often refer to him as my sibling.
Eventually, I attended grad school at Oxford and spent a lot of time traveling through the Balkans. I quickly realized that very spirit of rebellion that brought my friend and me together as adolescents very much extends into the rest of the world. Beyond national history, the proof exists in the past of the multitude of religions that are both so adequately represented in the Twin Cities and on a larger scale, Central Europe. So many of the stories of perseverance from the region during the Yugoslavian war or both World Wars stem from these religious mythologies. Christianity was created out of a movement against a colonizing force in The Levant and resulting exploitation of the local population in Jerusalem. Islam’s roots came from a drive to counter corruption and exploitation stemming from the elites of the tribal societies within the Arabian Peninsula. Judaism’s history is filled with stories of rebellion in the midst of persecution. While many have discussed the role that religion played in dividing people in Central Europe, many forget that persecuted communities also called upon these stories of rebellion to endure.
Using technology as a proxy for physical experiences
Since my travels, my career has focused on helping people understand the benefits of using technology as a proxy for physical experiences. For example, mobile banking took off in rural Africa partially because of the challenges farmers faced in physically getting to banks. Telehealth has removed the need to physically visit the doctor for every ailment. Dating apps have become one of the most predominant ways to meet people.
Just as physical experiences have moved online, so have the interactions that drive other human experiences, such as rebellion. In Iran, smartphone apps use crowdsourcing to help people avoid the country’s morality police. In China, coded memes and blockchain help raise awareness of social injustice. Activists in Chile and Hong Kong are communicating with each other on social media and sharing examples of how to disrupt the technology used to counter rebellion, such as drones and facial recognition.
The world is marching in unison
If 25 years ago, two kids in Minnesota whose upbringing couldn’t have been more different could create a sibling-like bond due to shared rebellious instincts, certainly the mitigation of the physical geography due to technology is also bringing together similar people, but at a global level. The proof points are already manifesting. The world is marching in unison through a common Black Lives Matter banner. Statues are being toppled.
The fact that this protest has spread with so much fervor from a mid-size city in the United States seems to be due in part to a shared digital experience that transcends a simplistic narrative. The Black Lives Matter protests are just the latest in worldwide frustrations from a generation that has been negatively impacted by two to three economic catastrophes. This generation also organized around last year’s Youth Strike for Climate and the 2017 Women’s March.
Recently, some people have been quick to dismiss this phenomenon as “cancel culture” or “woke-ism,” which seems like a nonsensically simplistic explanation given the fact that there are literally paintings of George Floyd on bombed-out buildings in rural Syria.
There is a risk in over-simplifying these narratives. A few days before the shooting of protesters at Kent State, President Richard Nixon labeled anti-war demonstrators communists. Three years before the failed coup d’état in Turkey in 2016, protesters fighting against economic and cultural policies were labeled looters by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Rebellion is part of our collective past. Understanding this history helps us understand the weaknesses of the status quo at the time of dissent. By minimizing what is bringing together people across the globe in rebellion, we are missing an opportunity to critique today.
Essentially then, the very people who proclaim to be protecting history and its symbols seem to be ignoring the fact that there are people coming together in ways that were never before possible and as a result, there are lessons to be learned from the very history that is being made today.
Zameer Baber grew up in Blaine, MN and attended high school in St. Paul. He attended graduate school at the University of Oxford and is currently in pursuit of his doctorate at IE Business School, focusing his research on culture and change. Zameer is also a management consultant focusing on digital transformation.
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