Sunday, February 1, 2015


The word "courage" doesn't instantly summon for us the same kind of associations it once would have. One gets the sense in reading William James, say, that for people of his generation, there could be no confusion or doubt about the definition of the term: it meant above all the willingness to face death or violence. It was "If..." and Balaclava; it was the blind charge into the nose of the Gatling gun; it was sitting quietly in the grand ballroom of the Titanic, as does one character in A Night to Remember, while listening to the wood panels all around you give a final creak and shudder before giving way. For earlier generations of outlaws and rebels and revolutionaries, similarly, courage was the ability to hold a grimace when facing the firing squad. It was that "calm and haughty look" on the condemned man's face, which "damns the whole multitude around the scaffold." (Baudelaire, Aggeler trans.). Nowadays, we view such a definition of courage as primitive, materialistic, insufficiently spiritualized. What about the courage to risk social opprobrium? The willingness to differ from one's peers? The ability to think for oneself?

Good point; but when, I ask, does opprobrium become most terrifying and difficult to resist? When does it require the most moral courage to differ from the people around you in views and manner and dress? When is it hardest to express and hold independent, challenging thoughts? Surely, it is when the social consensus one is resisting is backed by violence, or by the threat of violence. 

I'm going to make the point here, then, that physical courage -- courage in its barest, basest form of being willing to act despite threats of violence -- is still the fundamental courage -- as lamentably unspiritual as that sounds. Physical courage is moral courage. Moreover, I think we all know this, or at least realize it over again, on those occasions when violence erupts back into our world of relative privilege.


There may be doubts already stirring. Is my theory of courage a "militaristic" one? Not at all. Quite to the contrary, I will argue below that the corollary belief in the primacy of physical over other forms of courage, is the belief that violence is the greatest kind of wrong. Meanwhile, the most difficult of any physical courage to express in the face of violence is the sort that refuses to pay back violence in kind. I won't bother reminding you of examples-- as soon as you think of any non-violent movement for social change, you will recognize how much physical and not just spiritual courage was required in their work. In a war-mad state, meanwhile, conscientious objection may involve risking as much violence as volunteering for the front would do, except delivered to one's person in that case by one's own government, rather than by an opposing army. Physical courage is not just soldiers' courage. It can be the courage of the deserter; the courage of the one who risks court martial for refusing orders that violate her conscience.

But this is not the only objection some will raise. More cynically, some of us have come to doubt the idea that violence really is so universally evil as our liberal cultural inheritance insists. Might not the hatred of violence be just a decadent Western notion? Is violent cruelty really the summum mallum the old liberals made it out to be? From Nietzsche, we have the thought that violence is simply one expression of the will to power, and our moralistic, lawyerly ways of circumventing violence another such expression, the one no difference in essence from the other. From Foucault, we get the related idea that our modern norms have simply found new ways of inflicting "discipline" on our behavior, little less tyrannical in their essence than the methods of former times -- the ones that made full use of physical violence; the stocks, the rack, the stake. 

For people with such doubts, the old-fashioned liberal emphasis on preserving above all else the most basic kinds of bodily integrity from the threat of physical violation -- on "putting cruelty first" as Judith Shklar would put it -- seems literal-minded, materialistic, block-headed.

I give Nietzsche et al. their due for uncovering their share of truths. However, I ultimately don't think it's just a coincidence that such ideas have gained the most currency in societies and among social groups most privileged by their freedom from violence. For those who still live daily in the presence of violence, by contrast, I suspect it seems much clearer that the fundamental evil is physical evil. And the reverse side of that token must be the importance of physical courage, above all other courages. If violence is the great wrong, then the great good is the capacity to triumph over its designs; the refusal to be deterred by it; the bravery that so little fears violence that it does not even meet it with more violence.

Sometimes for polemical purposes people who really know better will say otherwise. It's a humorous enough conceit, after all, to pretend that moralism can be every bit as degrading and humiliating as violence-- especially when we are feeling sour toward the moralists. We can all enjoy lines like this, from George Orwell's essay on Tolstoy:
"There are families in which the father will say to his child, ‘You'll get a thick ear if you do that again’, while the mother, her eyes brimming over with tears, will take the child in her arms and murmur lovingly, ‘Now, darling, is it kind to Mummy to do that?’ And who would maintain that the second method is less tyrannous than the first? The distinction that really matters is not between violence and non-violence, but between having and not having the appetite for power."
As much as we take the meaning, I don't think any of us can really agree with Orwell in the literal sense -- I doubt even Orwell agrees with Orwell in the literal sense; it is more likely he is telling a serious-minded joke. Pace this joking version of Orwell, however, I remain convinced that violence really is more "tyrannous" than conscience-pricking, even if both display a will to power. I'll tell you why.

The horrible thing about violence is not just the physical pain that it causes. Emotional pains can be worse than physical ones, after all, awful as both are (though in 1984, Orwell's own creation Winston Smith disputes this). Grief, disappointment, the guilt that Orwell's tyrannous Mummy and her superego wield like a mace -- those can sting much more than a box on the ears. But what is so distinctively horrible about violence is precisely its emotional impact, not just its physical one.

More so than any other method of tyranny and control and "discipline" we know of, violence is humiliation. It forces upon us the irrefutable direct evidence of our powerlessness -- or rather, it is the forcing of such evidence. There is a reason we describe the more spiritualized kinds of aggression Orwell is talking about in metaphors drawn from the literal. I was forced to... They made me... -- the degradation such phrases describe when we are talking about emotional coercion is a metaphor for what actually happens in the case of physical violence. We lose control over our own bodies and movements. We are at the mercy of someone else.

Think of our other metaphors. Have you even been blown along a few paces by a "violent wind"? Remember your feelings then-- shock at how flimsy you actually are, a kind of angry surprise, the basic strangeness of it. You spend your time with this thing, your body, that is so much a part of you that it is you. Schopenhauer didn't think you could speak coherently of a mind-body duality, even, when the "will" to move a limb generally is that limb's movement. To him, the body is an extension of the mind. This is indeed how we experience it. And this is what makes violence so different from all other experiences we have, even from all other cruelties we endure-- it is what makes it so distinctively violating. Violence takes part of what we regard as ourself and shows that in fact it is a thing. It makes us into something will-less, manipulable.

Violence takes away personhood, in short. This is said so often and so piously, but we don't often think about exactly why or to what a great extent it is true.

You may find your personhood feeling threatened or at risk by various tyrannies that are not strictly speaking violent -- by moralistic or spiritualized malice, say. But none of them actually makes your body -- you, that is -- into a thing. Other kinds may make you feel like a thing, but they don't render your body into a thing-like appendage attached to your mind, and deprive it of its role as an expressive extension of your will. That is the distinct purview of violence.

The most profound remarks on violence are those that realize this fact: the pain of it is not just the physical pain; it is the emotional pain of powerlessness; it is the distinctive humiliation that lies in such a demonstration of one's will-lessness, one's thing-ness. Apparently there's a lot of this idea of thing-ness and its relation to violence in Simone Weil, but I haven't read her enough to quote her. I can quote from Schopenhauer, however, on the subject:
"No suffering laid upon us by nature or chance or fate is so painful as that inflicted by the will of another. This is so because we recognize nature and chance as the primal masters of the world and we can see that what nature and chance do to us they would have done to anyone else. [...] Suffering caused by the will of another, on the other hand, includes a quite peculiar and bitter addition to the pain or injury itself, namely the consciousness of someone else's superiority [...] together with that of one's own impotence." (Hollingdale trans.)
So long as one is at the mercy of another person, the physical pain doesn't even have to arrive, for violence already to be present. The worst of all the tortures inflicted in our CIA dungeons was perhaps the bare knowledge on the victims' part that they had been kidnapped, held illegally, without legal recourse and without access to civil society and a chance to tell their story. Of course, in that case, the physical pain did come, but the atrocity, the violence, was already present just in our government's assertion of its absolute power over their persons. Absolute power is violence. All the humiliation is already there. What is more, when one is entirely at the mercy of another, one is able to fill in all the gaps between literal pains with fear. So long as one has no rights and no recourse available, one knows that any pain one can think of might come. And that is nearly as painful as the pain itself.

This is the violence endured through countless centuries of human slavery and degradation. It is the humiliation of the commoner or serf who existed only on the sufferance of some big man or other, and who might be spared by the latter on any given day -- or who might be run through or raped or flogged instead. It is still endured daily by people who live under the absolute power of another, in various of the world's societies.

I hope you are willing to agree, by this point, that violence really is different from other kinds of human cruelty and maliciousness. It hurts and traumatizes more deeply even than the most savage emotional manipulation (so long as the latter is not itself backed up by the threat of violence, as emotional manipulation generally is in our world). Any non-violent cruelty still leaves you with an escape hatch. It leaves you space to breathe in, psychologically and physically. That mental appendage known as the body can still choose to walk away, because it has not been rendered a thing.

If violence is the great wrong, then, the great courage is still the kind that willingly faces violence, the kind that defies threats of it, that shows contempt for it. Sometimes it is simply the courage to go on living, even when one is being subjected to violence, even when one is at another person's mercy. It is the courage to exist, when most of us feel like we would crumple into ourselves and expire in the same situation. Physical courage, that is.

Such courage is almost past understanding, for most relatively privileged people --including myself. And this is probably a significant part of the reason we now tend to undervalue it. The need for it doesn't show itself very often in our lives, so we forget its importance.

We start to understand it again -- and to understand just what a rare and necessary virtue it is-- when violence intrudes itself unexpectedly into our sheltered worlds. We suddenly stand accused in such situations by the physical courage that others display around us. The recent attacks in France, for instance; the willingness of the Charlie Hebdo staff to repeat the same supposed "offense" the next week for which many of them were killed; the fact that journalists and human rights reporters and aid workers are still willing to enter conflict zones and risk capture and torture and assassination at the hands of militant groups for the sake of their work. These people display virtues you and I do not possess.

Most of us experience physical courage only in short bursts-- immaterial puffs of smoke, they often turn out to be. This is the type of courage that makes poor judgements about the size and relative strength of one's opponent. It is the courage that makes me fantasize about picking fights with people who are rude to baristas at Starbucks. It is the kind that doesn't outlast the first emotion that inspired it-- some moment of indignation or fellow-feeling. In the Varieties, William James refers to courage as above all a product of the "higher excitabilities"-- passions that flood through us in an instant-- and for an instant-- and sweep away all objections. But, he adds, it is a rare soul whose entire character is fired by such a passion. Those of us who feel overwhelmed with despair and boredom simply because it is three o'clock are not cut from the same cloth as these.

The real demand on courage doesn't come with the first indignation and how one responds to it, therefore. It comes from the fact that the threat of retaliatory violence always outlasts the "excitability" that first prompted one to dare its wrath. Once the flush is gone, then sets in the simple terror, maybe even the wish to retract the earlier bold gesture. Our band of warm and solidaristic thoughts deserts us at the first touch of pain, the first fear of the possibility of pain. Then there is just the inability to keep down food, the darting looks, the clammy palms, and the regret.

The people we can scarcely understand, let alone emulate, are the ones whose courage outlasts the first feeling. The Charlie Hebdo staff, who went on for weeks and months publishing material that they knew could get them killed. The people who risked everything to publish against organized crime networks or the Church of Scientology. People who defy our own government and its apparatus from a position of less security than we enjoy. People who go on publishing dissident journals in China or Russia despite the menace of being shut down, jailed, disappeared, tortured.

One reads about the early days of fascism's rise to power in Italy and is similarly staggered. One learns of the journalists and political leaders and ordinary people who kept defying Mussolini in print despite the near-certainty that blackshirts would eventually descend on them, beat them, set fire to their homes, and destroy their presses. It doesn't mean they weren't terrified; it just means that the terror did not define their actions.

This kind of political courage, though, is only one kind of physical courage -- the kind displayed by people with some degree of social power, however circumscribed. It is the physical courage needed by those to whom powerful people pay attention, to whose utterances the authorities and the crime networks are sufficiently attuned that they find it worthwhile to silence them.

There is another kind of physical courage beyond this one-- the kind that Yizhar Smilansky refers to in Khirbet Khizeh as the "unique heroism of the weak." This is the type of courage that expresses itself simply in existing that I referred to above. The courage in living under the thumb and power and violence of another without cracking up or dying.

This is the kind of physical courage that the socially privileged most entirely ignore and devalue. It is the courage of the prisoner and of the fellow walking to the execution chamber; the courage of the woman who shares a roof with someone who might beat her or rape her or kidnap her children; the courage of the children who live with the knowledge that their mother or father might be deported from the country and lose parental rights; the courage of the detainee in an orange jumpsuit who might be released tomorrow, or maybe in twenty years, or maybe never; the courage of the West Bank resident who looks on as her house is caved in by a bulldozer; the courage of everyone who lives at the mercy and whim of another in this world.
"It's a naked child against a hungry wolf;
It's playing bowls upon a splitting wreck;
It's walking on a string across a gulf
With millstones fore-and-aft about your neck;
But the thing is daily done by many and many a one;
And we fall, face forward, fighting, on the deck. " (John Davidson, "Thirty Bob a Week")

That's courage. And for those of us who do not possess it or are not asked to possess it -- for those of us who are not called on for it often enough in our lives even to know if we possess it -- the least we can do is to value it in others.

Given how distinctively horrible is violence, no one can charge cowardice against anyone who does not possess the physical courage I am describing here. That would not be fair in the least, especially if we don't possess this courage ourselves when we cast this aspersion. What is cowardly, however, is the devaluing or the undervaluing of the virtue in question. To the extent we don't give our esteem to the people who face and face knowingly the almost unimaginable horror of violence, we become collaborators in that violence.

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