Manliness, Part II: What Is Courage?

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As Bridget pointed out, in the news recently, we have seen a terrible episode involving young, presumably heterosexual, men who tortured gay men in the Bronx.  It is an appalling example of hypermasculinity where violent cruelty is its own reward.  Mayor Bloomberg aptly observed:  “What kind of twisted logic spurs a large group of men to show off their toughness by ganging up on helpless individuals? That’s not showing you’re tough, that’s just showing that you’re weak and despicable.”

I think that any morally responsible person, like Mayor Bloomberg, will reflexively condemn the hate-driven violence as intolerable and worthy of punishment; like the mayor, any moral person will denounce the crime as “despicable.”

However, there is another issue raised by the mayor which is less straightforward:  the role of courage (and cowardice) in the ontology of manliness. As I will suggest, there is a relationship between the two that is both paradoxical and parasitic.

As a matter of convention, men are required to be courageous.  So tangled is the relationship between manliness and courage that the two words derive from the same etymological root in some languages.  In Greek, andros means adult man and andreia means courage;  in English, vir is the stem for manliness (as in virility) and virtu doesn’t exactly mean “virtue” with its undertone of Christianity, but connotes the pre-Christian, ancient idea of strength and manliness.  (In a less academic context, I have winced when avowedly left-leaning male law professors have congratulated female colleagues for having the “balls” to stand up for some idea or position; the compliment is both an homage to the female colleagues as persons as well as an expression of oblique contempt for the stereotypical cravenness of women).

But courage isn’t something that one has or doesn’t have.  To wit:  Acts that appear to be outwardly courageous are often impelled by a dreadful fear, and thus, a cowardice all its own.  Here’s the great novelist Tim O’Brien recounting why he did not flee the draft during the Vietnam War:  “I feared the war, yes, but I also feared exile. I was afraid of walking away from my own life, my friends and my family, my whole history, everything that mattered to me. I feared losing the respect of my parents. I feared the law. I feared ridicule and censure.”  In sum, he concludes:  “Family, the home town, friends, history, tradition, fear, confusion, exile: I could not run. . . . I was a coward.”

After basic training, expectations for manly “courage” endured.  O’Brien says of his battalion’s soldiers that “[t]hey carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. . . . They died so as not to die of embarrassment.”

Under such circumstances, which are easily reproduced in bars and school yards across the United States, and, yes, neighborhoods in the Bronx, men, usually young men, do things that are dangerous and thus presumptively courageous but because they are afraid of seeming a coward.  But what of the paradox?–Are you behaving courageously, and hence acting like a man, or are you overwhelmed by fear, and thus engulfed by the feminine vice of cowardice? Stated differently, where does the fear of being afraid fit in the ontology of manliness? (Douglas Galbi has suggested that men have acquired this fear of being afraid–what passes for courage–through the forces of evolution.)

For those interested, I explore these themes in The Burdens of Manliness.

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