Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

Bravery Debates

by Jeff Polet

After some time in the academy, I started obsessing about how certain words were being used. The academy entertains jargon at a very high level, and particular words and phrases often obscure meaning rather than reveal it. I could give numerous examples of this, but this habit is not relegated to the academy alone; or, maybe, the fact that many of our reporters were schooled in the modern academy has rendered them unable to speak plainly and with attention to meaning.

The results are often comical, but they do from time to time carry dangerous consequences, especially when the obscuring of meaning is designed to draw attention away from what, if accurately described, would be a morally objectionable deed; or if the description is designed simply to make someone feel good about himself without actually demonstrating the implied virtue. Perhaps the main danger is that the claiming of virtue can be a way of shutting down conversation rather than encouraging it.

Once you are alerted to how certain words suddenly have coinage, you’ll be more attentive to particular expressions of it (what is known as the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon). Why do I mention this? Because one recurring usage that often set my teeth on edge is when someone would describe their actions, or someone else’s confession, as “courageous” or “brave.” These words refer to classical virtues and whose meaning relates to how we respond to serious risk. Without serious risk, there can be no courage. This is particularly true when the claim to virtue is designed to by pass criticism rather than invite it.

Scott Alexander some years ago wrote a thoughtful essay about this:

There’s a tradition on Reddit that when somebody repeats some cliche in a tone that makes it sound like she believes she is bringing some brilliant and heretical insight – like “I know I’m going to get downvoted for this, but believe we should have less government waste!” – people respond “SO BRAVE” in the comments. That’s what I mean by bravery debates. Discussions over who is bravely holding a nonconformist position in the face of persecution, and who is a coward defending the popular status quo and trying to silence dissenters.

But the problem goes further than the assumption of virtue and the conversation-closing consequences. In an era defined by victimology, that is the belief that “being a victim” automatically confers moral status upon someone, every person is inclined to think of herself as a victim. The resulting “bravery debates” become corrupted by the near-universal claim that one is in a disadvantaged and risky position, even (and especially) if such a claim bears no relationship to reality.

The persistence of bravery debates is actually kind of weird. Shouldn’t it be really really easy to figure out who’s being oppressed by whom? The Spanish Inquisition had many faults, but whining about being unfairly persecuted by heretics was, as far as I know, not one of them. Can two opposing positions really be absolutely certain they are under siege?

Alexander argues that the problem largely results from a corrupted media environment that targets both specific audiences and generates crisis and hysteria as its business model. It’s a successful model largely “because bravery debates tend to be so fun and addictive that they drown out everything more substantive. Sometimes they can be acceptable stand-ins for actually having an opinion at all.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Can you give examples of people assuming “bravery positions” when there is really no risk involved at all?
  2. What sorts of arguments or positions would be genuinely brave; that is to say, which positions would risk life or livelihood? Are stories about people getting fired for holding to a particular idea true, largely true, or largely fabricated?
  3. How do bravery claims relate to efforts to assume and/or maintain power?

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