Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Value of Courage

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the value of courage. I think as a society and a culture we do value courage to some extent but I also wonder if part of that is just idealism. Perhaps we believe that we aught to value courage, that courage is admirable, that courage should be encouraged and rewarded in some way.

In the spring of 1989 after hundreds, perhaps thousands of protesters were killed by government forces in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, the world watched in fascination as one man on his own confronted what seemed like the entire Chinese military machine .

I love the fact that this lone man is carrying shopping bags in both hands as he steps out in front of a long line of tanks and stops them cold.

He wasn't armed, except possibly with a bag of rice and whatever else he had picked up at the grocery store, but he saw those tanks designed for war rumbling through the streets of his city and he knew it was wrong and so he stepped off the curb and did something about it.

To a tank, one person is not an obstacle, or even a speed bump, and it could have ended quite differently, but the tanks stopped and the world watched and took heart from the outrageous courage of one man who dared to oppose the powerful.

It was a small thing really.

The tanks stopped, but after a few minutes some people pulled the man away and the tanks moved forward again as though nothing had happened and the man literally disappeared from history. 

To this day his identity and fate remain unknown and perhaps it's better that way. The "tank man" could have been any one of us on any given day, when we've "had enough" or when we just happen to be the one person in a position to stand up and make a difference.

Practically, it was a small thing and lasted only for a few minutes, but as a focal point and rallying cry after the massacre of the day before, it brought the world to the edge of their seats and taught the value of courage to a whole new generation.

It should not be lost on us that the obedience that is so ingrained in military forces and that those in power, whatever their industry or level or political stripe value so highly, prevented the simple expedient of the next tank in line simply driving around the first stopped tank. 

Obedience has it's place. The chain of command has it's place. No-one wants chaos.

But the problem seems to be that courage often leads to conflict, it often makes it uncomfortable not only for the courageous but especially for those they oppose. 

Usually it is those who have the power and have either forgotten their responsibilities or just become corrupted by that same power who the courageous must oppose and often there are unfortunate consequences when the powerful react. 

When we have the power and are in the wrong and we know it, or we are simply in love with power, prestige or position, we are likely to react with anger, fear, greed, and a desire to shut down any opposition before it threatens us. When this happens we don't care about what is right and if we still do, we are very good at convincing ourselves that our position, however wrong, is actually the right one.

I admire courage. Lately I have seen firsthand the courageous opposing the powerful and it's the courageous person who sees wrong being done and opposes it, who I admire. 

It's easy to go along with the crowd, to get swept away with "group think" and to convince ourselves that we are in the right, but it takes genuine courage to step away from the "consensus" and think for ourselves. 

When all eyes are on us, whether it's just the eyes of a room full of people or the eyes of the whole world, the temptation, the pressure, is to say, "never mind" and take our bags of groceries and go home, having done nothing and having to live with that. 

And that is a tragedy.

Watch any cartoon or read any comic book or look at actual human history for that matter and you will see that except for how courage can be exploited by them, villains always value obedience over courage. It seems that those in the wrong see courage as a threat because courage combined with clear thinking will inevitably lead to confrontation.

If someone sees that wrong is being done or is being contemplated and they understand that they not only can but should intervene and they have courage, they will act. 

The alternative is unthinkable.

"The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Edmund Burke