Guest Opinion: Courage as a modern virtue

Rather than demand safe spaces and PC, exhibit mental toughness and focus on how to disagree better

By RYAN BERG | April 2019


Many authors have lamented a “crisis of civility” and “moral panic” in our political environment. The demotion of civility as a virtue by President Donald Trump has been taken to heart and reciprocated by his political opponents to burnish their credentials as part of “the resistance.”

While both approaches are deplorable, the problem with efforts to tamp down on putative incivility is that its prosecution often transforms into outright persecution. In other words, disagreements over an idea or manner of expression can descend quickly into suppression, and what is essentially a defensive mechanism occasionally can evolve into an offensive weapon.

The consequences are well-known by those observing or frequenting the political arena: the demand for safe spaces, trigger warnings and political correctness that represent ideational closure; the concepts of “implicit bias” and “microaggressions,” which advance the idea that small comments during a contentious exchange are so catastrophic to one’s being that the offended must withdraw in the name of personal safety; and the “no-platforming” of speakers whose ideas are judged to be dangerous and unworthy of our contemplation before they are even heard.

While some have deemed this crisis to be unprecedented in its scope, we have been here before. After all, the human tendency to retreat into enclaves of like-minded groups and to view the “other” as the enemy, even within environments whose explicit purpose is intense dialogue and philosophical inquiry (e.g., the university), is nothing novel.

What may be novel, however, are the phenomena — mostly social media and the rise of ersatz “digital communities” — exacerbating these trends.

As free societies have seen the foundations for amicable but honest disagreement slip away, the necessity to cultivate a kind of mental toughness seems even more imperative.

Mental toughness would allow us to maintain the space within which we could have productive discussions and conduct the business of politics without devolving into screaming matches and ad hominem attacks.

As the great political philosopher John Stuart Mill says, in order to have productive exchanges, it is important that we recognize the limitations of our individual perspectives and treat others as true interlocutors — perhaps even as our worthy educators.

How might we go about cultivating this kind of mental toughness and epistemic humility?

In a word: courage.

A new kind of courage

The ancient virtue of courage is the one most closely associated with assessing and overcoming threats. Obviously, threats can take many forms, usually corresponding to different types of courage: martial courage to overcome a bodily threat in battle, political courage to overcome the threat to self-interest when seeking the common good (res publica) and moral courage to overcome the classic moral predicament, for example.

Yet, what we require is a more run-of-the-mill kind of courage — a type of quotidian courage for the daily grind of political discussions, allowing us to operate and flourish within diverse political communities.

Put a different way, what our society is lacking is not the same virtue that propelled the Greatest Generation to storm the beaches of Normandy, somehow plucked from its ancient birth and inserted into the modern context, but an altogether new application of courage.

Modern courage and the mental toughness it gives rise to are the linchpins to remaining in the arena against those we find uncivil — and perhaps even beyond the pale. Courage helps us during unpleasant exchanges and prohibits our retreat from the public square where we practice politics and encounter our fellow citizens in their full diversity.

While at first glance, modern courage might appear to be nothing more than cohabitation with different people, like its ancient predecessor, it actually is quite demanding. After all, it sustains us in open disagreement and even occasional contempt for our opponents, believing that this is a stronger foundation for a free society.

Regrettably, we have entered a time when political opinions, especially, are considered by many to be an important part of their identity that is beyond rational scrutiny.

In Francis Fukuyama’s latest book, “Identity,” he laments that the universal recognition brought about by the advent of modern democracy has been replaced by narrower and more tribal forms of recognition — nation, ethnicity, gender — that have colonized our politics. Cherished beliefs form such a part of our identities that disproving them can leave us anchorless and filled with angst.

The internet exacerbates our tendency to avoid an exchange aimed at critiquing and to silo in communities of like-minded individuals. In general, the range of ideas to which we are routinely exposed — and our ability to countenance them — is winnowing.

Only in modernity can we understand such phenomena as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which holds that the less skilled and competent individuals are, the higher their level of confidence that they are good at what they do.

These trends suggest that we are practicing something different from courage in modern politics. But there are many ways the practice of courage can enhance our political experience.

Tolerance and persuasion

Among other things, one of the most important aspects of courage is that it provides us the ability to live with uncertainty — i.e., that reassurance ought to come not from the size of our tribe but in the form of political possibility. In other words, modern courage inclines citizens toward the possibilities of politics and dialogue and away from its polar opposite: orthodoxies and dogmas. Modern courage combats the desire for ontological security at all costs and impels us to trust our fellow citizens to use their liberty responsibly, rather than licensing it only on certain conditions.

The practice of courage, then, ensures that we exhibit some measure of tolerance toward the ideas of others, sympathize with life projects and commitments not our own and internalize value conflict and value pluralism. Courage helps us remain comfortable in the value of our life projects and withstand the criticism of them by others or, conversely, to admit that our beliefs and projects are not as persuasive as others’ are upon greater reflection and consideration.

Demonstrating tolerance in a consistent manner is far more demanding than repression. In the words of Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset in “The Revolt of the Masses,” tolerance is the “determination to live with an enemy, and even more, with a weak enemy.”

While the tactics of some groups indicate that we have forgotten the lesson, real change in a free society ought to come from persuasion and robust speech practices, not violence or the abrogation of civil norms.

To be sure, persuasion seems out of reach in many political exchanges. While it is possible that we have lost the ability to persuade, it appears more likely that persuasion is not the objective of many political discussions at all. Rather, political exchange has become a vehicle to signal one’s moral purity and for emotional venting.

We recognize this as the familiar speech patterns of those who participate in the moral outrage machine. But we cannot expect progress in the way John Stuart Mill meant it — the betterment of our moral condition, as opposed to cosmetic societal changes — if we are unwilling to speak to one another and participate in a vigorous exchange of ideas.

The modern need for courage, therefore, does not require the reinvigoration of ancient heroism and resignation to all of its attendant ills. Instead, modern forms of courage find their greatest relevance not in physical conflict on the battlefield but in the context of persuasive and intense speech exchanges.

We must thicken our skin in the face of criticisms from our fellow citizens in an era when the tools at our disposal make it all too easy to retreat to our corner of kindred spirits. Rather than finding a way to disagree less, we ought to focus on how to disagree better through the practice of courage.

Ryan BergRyan Berg is a Latin America research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. Born and raised in Wisconsin, Berg focuses his research on topics ranging from political philosophy to transnational organized crime in the Western Hemisphere. This essay was adapted from “Can Courage be a Modern Virtue?: Seeking Insight in Tocqueville, Mill and Arendt,” Berg’s 2018 thesis submitted for a Ph.D. in Politics at Oxford University.