The Link Between Power, Courage & Empathy …*

The Link Between Power, Courage & Empathy ...* | rethinked.org - Photo: Elsa Fridman

If you draw a series of parallel lines closely together, and then another series across them at an angle, you have the simplest visual example of the dialectical process. Cross-hatching as they call it. You have the first series of line, then you have the second series in opposition to the first. But out of the two you get a series of diamonds.

Now, if you look at these diamonds, remembering that every one has had to be drawn, you are overwhelmed by the length and complexity of the task. The diamonds are like the future we work for. Yet, courage. The first series of lines is there. All we have to do is to cross them.

– John Berger, A Painter of our Times, 1958


In a fascinating article recently published on The Greater Good Science CenterWhen Courage Goes Bad, Jeremy Adam Smith examines Cynthia Pury’s research on courage–how we experience, perceive and attribute it to others. Courage, it turns out, is often used as a currency of power–we attribute it to those who share our goals while withholding it from those whom we perceive as being outside our self-defined groups.

In the article, Adam Smith examines a recent social media post which stated, “As I see post after post about Bruce Jenner’s transition to a woman, and I hear words like, bravery, heroism, and courage, just thought I’d remind all of us what real American courage, heroism, and bravery looks like!” The post was accompanied by a picture of toy soldiers and went viral, being shared almost a million times. This is a prime example of how we tend to frame courage as a zero-sum game–by calling Caitlyn Jenner courageous, the author of that social media post felt we were detracting from the ‘real’ courage of American armed forces. The withholding of attributing courage to someone’s actions is very much linked to an absence of empathy for their experience. The good news is that how we frame courage is very much a choice. We can choose to see it as a finite resource and guard it jealously only for our own self-perceived groups, or we can choose to acknowledge the vast plurality of human experiences and understand that ultimately, courage depends on the series of lines we each choose to cross.

. . . *

Pury’s research suggests that courage is something we grant to validate certain goals and withhold to invalidate others. While it might seem as though Jenner and an American soldier could both be courageous, in fact we appear to feel a strong impulse to treat courage like a finite resource that goes to some people but not others. Just as we sometimes withhold empathy or compassion from out-groups, so we will refuse to grant that people can be courageous if we don’t approve of their goals or values.

[ … ] 

Pury’s research has found that courage is more likely to emerge when a person sees a meaningful goal and then believes he or she has the ability to achieve that goal, a product of cognitive appraisal she calls “process courage.”

A man is more likely to run into a burning building to save kittens if he has the training and equipment to do so. A man who runs into the building without those things might be seen as courageous—but not, perhaps, very smart. A third man who has the training and equipment but doesn’t see saving kittens as a worthy goal would simply stand on the sidelines. So whether to take action depends on a person’s goals, as well as evaluations of personal risk and his own ability to achieve the goal.

But how will observers view that private decision? Here’s where things get interesting—and debatable.

Much, argued Pury, depends on whether other people share the goal in question. To the community of people who have transitioned from one sex to the other, Jenner is a hero: an accomplished male athlete who was willing to embrace a new celebrity identity as a woman. In this view, it took personal courage to go public with a very intimate decision—and by doing so, pave the way for others with less social power and wealth to follow the same path. She had the resources to create an image for others to pursue.

The conservative reaction was very different. To conservatives, Jenner’s goal—to raise the visibility of transgendered people—is socially destructive.

To a degree, it’s a problem of empathy and group affiliation. “If it’s your lived life, you know that that transition is really important and you value that goal because you’ve pursued it yourself,” said Pury. You would also know firsthand all the barriers and hostility that Jenner would face. Knowing something about her struggle might make her courageous in your eyes.

But to conservatives, all of that pales in comparison to the goal of maintaining rigid barriers between men and women, a dichotomy on which they say the American family depends. In the pages of the National Review, Doug French framed courage as resistance to the trend Jenner represents.

“By refusing to speak, we contribute to the notion that even conservatives understand that something is wrong—something is shameful—about our own deepest beliefs,” he writes. French (an Iraq veteran) is not willing to attribute courage to Jenner, instead granting it to members of his own self-defined group, people who share his values, experiences, and goals.

Source: When Courage Goes Bad by Jeremy Adam Smith via The Greater Good, published July 16, 2015

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