I have this hunch that people in modern society can be very brave. They would jump in front of a bus to save a child or beat off a shark from attacking their mate on his surfboard or chase down a thief to retrieve an old lady’s handbag or any number of dangerous gestures.
Only I think they lack courage.
Brave but not courageous. Let me explain.
Way back on 14 August 1861 one hundred years almost to the day before I was born, the New York Times published an article entitled Courage and Cowardice in which the reporter wrote
A man may be brave, absolutely fearless, and yet lack courage; not moral courage, but physical courage of the higher kind. Indeed, the man who does not know the sensation of fear (and there are men so constituted) can never be truly courageous
The idea here is that bravery is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous without any fear, most often because the fear is unknown or not felt.
This can be instinctual such as hitting a shark on the nose or somewhat calculated when running after the thief. Either way, it is an ego-driven response, more instinct than rational.
Courage is the ability to confront something painful or difficult or dangerous despite any fear.
This means there is usually time to think through the consequences and to know that they are likely to be painful or contain a risk that should be avoided if possible.
This distinction suggests that the brave soul is somewhat blase, maybe not sure what is coming and yet will jump over the rim of the trench into the enemy fire. The courageous soul is fully aware of the impending doom and is scared shitless but goes over the lip anyway.
Now suppose that the prevalence of bravery is greater than courage.
More people are throwing themselves fearlessly into the fire than those who hesitate before they do.
What does this look like for a society?
The brave souls
The brave souls do not understand why the courageous might hesitate. They do not see why they should be fearful. All they need is some bravery for goodness sake.
Anyway, what is there to worry about? There is nothing to fear. The fearful are weak, namby-pamby types who pretend there is something to be frightened about just so they can claim they are courageous. God help us. That will never get anything done. If we were fearful we’d never have left the forest for the savanna or Africa for the riches of the world.
And anyway, when the heat is on, courage fails so many. I mean they just land in a heap of quivering blubber on the floor or try to hide on the inside of a huge tub of icecream too frightened to move.
No, we need brave souls, the fearless warriors, the ones who give victory and can come back to sing of their heroic acts.
The courageous souls
Well, bravery is certainly useful. But courage is the purer attribute. It takes more self-control, more to overcome, and, well, more courage to be courageous than brave.
What is coming is known or the possible consequences are, especially the likelihood of pain and suffering and the feelings of that pain. This is not an easy thing to overcome. It takes great personal fortitude to do it.
The courageous souls have looked fear in the eye and done it anyway. The brave cannot claim such a conquering of fear. They have not even seen it. They still have to face fear, still have to deal with that horror confrontation and so, despite their actions, they are actually fearful creatures. They are often consumed by fear with reckless acts as their only salve.
A society dominated by the brave may win wars but is unlikely to gain much empathy or decide a social safety net is a good idea or even introduce a universal income.
A society dominated by the courageous could still win the wars after exhausting all the possible alternative solutions to avoid conflict and much more likely to introduce social policies.
More importantly than this, the courageous know themselves. They have looked at the fear and freaked out. They have panicked and been shaken to their boots. Then they went over the lip into the enemy fire.
There really is something noble in that.
Brave but not courageous
Returning to the origins premise that modern society has plenty of bravery but not much courage is backed up by any number of current laments, many on this blog.
We have populist leaders who commend bravery to their followers in the form of hatreds and tweets that say ‘yes, it’s fine to point that semi-automatic rifle at a protester’.
They don’t ask for too much courage though. To take some pain for the greater good.
We have traditional media that sensationalise everything, the bravery response and make cuts to journalism that analyses and asks pointy questions about the future.
We have social media that is designed for the brave — remember we said they were actually fearful souls — to slander, troll and generally act the macho with no consequence whatsoever.
And, and, and….
So here we go. Let’s get a dose of courage added to the COVID-19 vaccine injections. Have a herd immunity to bravery and get us some of that 1860’s ‘physical courage of the higher kind’.
A populist virus is with western democracy and we have no vaccine.
The virus is virulent with insidious symptoms that begin with the loss of rhyme and reason flowing seamlessly into early-onset imbecility and then late-stage demagoguery. So far there is no cure for the frat party gone wild.
Unlike the cold and flu virus that mutates away into any number of strains and generates fever, coughs and sore throats enough to put all the men in bed for a week, the populist virus is a dandy thing. It incites bouts of clapping, cheering, and crowdsourced glee at almost anything said by a carrier. As its designation suggests, it goes viral online faster than anything carried by a flea and contaminates all feeds all the time.
Being devoid of content, antibodies have nothing to attach to, making it difficult in the extreme for any would-be medic, not even big pharma has enough resources to find an antidote.
Alistair Campbell, spin doctor and thought machine behind Tony Blair and New Labour from the mid-1990s in the UK, talks about the populist virus and had this to say when considering the choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt for the next UK Prime Minister
“I mean, we have gone from figures like Thatcher leading the Tory party to this being the choice. But also, it was the extent to which the really simplistic, populist, fact-free rhetoric was the stuff which was getting the applause. Where even five, 10 years ago, there would have been the absolute howl of ‘How are you going to pay for it? What happens if that doesn’t happen?’
When Margaret Thatcher came to power in 1979 I was just about to become a university student. It was a painful time but boy did she get things done. Neo-liberalism was embraced and before anyone really knew what was happening the unions were busted and ordinary folk up and down the UK were buying their terrace house and giving birth to yuppies. Much of this was new and scary and ego-centric but mountains moved.
Likely that the early mutations of the populist virus, the ones with little chance of real success appeared around that time when there were still enough howling to weed them out.
Today we do not have any leaders worthy of the name anywhere except in New Zealand. Consequently, the virus has the freedom to spawn, spread and mess with everyone’s heads so much that people cheer at the detention of women and children in cages at borders.
This is frightening. Not many would look back at the political climate of the UK in the early eighties and lament its strong leadership. At the time it felt like a rape of a socialist ethos, today you would take it in a heartbeat for at least you knew what the leaders were about.
Now we have a virus afflicting normal people with insanity.
Is the populist virus fatal?
Well, we know that populism is doing well and is spreading. Some folk have an innate resistance to it but can still carry it forward to others.
It is pushing evidence and facts to one side as it bends minds away from even the most obvious of conclusions. It means we are running blind into a world that is still adding 8,000 new people per hour and where 3.3 billion souls are getting by on $5.50 per day.
The estimate from the agricultural research community is that by 2030 we need to increase global grain production by over a billion tonnes and meat production by 180 million tonnes, just to get close to the rising demand. That’s 2% per annum food production growth across the board each and every year for a generation. Just because we achieved such a miracle once before in the 1940s and 50s, does not mean we can automatically do it again.
Blindness is not necessarily fatal unless you think you can see. Then you can easily walk out in front of a bus.
The real difficulty with this virus seems to be the antidote. What to take to reduce the effects of imbecility. On this problem, everyone is at a loss, even Jacinta.
Progressives are old and tired and the centre is scurrying to the populist left to express the symptoms of the virus there.
Fringe alternatives are unable to grasp the magnitude of the task for the mainstream – we can’t all live on a mountaintop on goats milk.
The ivory towers are mute and even George Monbiot is struggling to find a whinge.
You know what? I think maybe we will collapse under the weight of this virus or a subsequent mutation of it.
At the very least too many of us will succumb after two terms of Donald, another two of Ivanka, even five minutes of Boris, and become rabid, spreading infection out to the entire world.
But I have a solution…
Get everyone to read The Courage to be Disliked by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga and inoculate ourselves with some Adlerian psychology.