Breaking the Glass Ceiling of Courage

The Bali Bombers are dead. When news of the executions came over the wireless I found it hard to shed tears. These men were murderers and tears are evidence of compassion. My opposition to the death penalty is motivated by more principled and practical concerns.

Much attention was paid in coverage of the story of the courage-or lack thereof-of one of the condemned men. Amrozi was described as “pale and afraid” and the “least brave” of the three men. He was also, we were informed, the “quickest to die.”

It’s easy to read between the lines. The Bali Bombers were cowards. They talked tough but when tested turned out to be piss weak. Barely men at all.

Such reportage dismays me. Firstly, because it wrongly suggests that the murderous behaviour of religious fanatics is brave. Secondly, because it implies that the absence of courag-or cowardice-is a particularly grievous moral failing when seen in men.

Is courage a particularly male virtue? My teenage son seems to think so. The dictionary defines courage as the capacity to withstand pain, danger and uncertainty. Perhaps this is what he thinks he is doing when he leaves the house throughout the winter months in a thin collared shirt because the warm parts of the school uniform are “for girls.” He may also think himself both male and brave when he returns from school with a skateboard broken in two from some daredevil stunt performed before the lunchtime crowd, then shares a smirk with this father when I worry that it might have been his head. When he grows up, he’ll probably refuse to go the doctor. Just like dad.

It’s all mindless peacock strutting in my view. Real courage is unisex, a virtue of which both women and men are capable. To act with courage is to act after some deliberation in a manner consistent with what we believe, feel or know is right. Confronting a racist at a dinner party, despite the risk of embarrassment, takes courage. Coming out as a lesbian, as a colleague of mine did recently, so that younger gays in her conservative profession would not feel so isolated takes courage. If one is a homebody it takes courage to travel overseas and if one fears getting hurt, falling in love is admirably brave. Former senator Linda Kirk showed courage, with lashing of personal integrity, when she supported stem-cell research and the removal of the Ministerial veto over RU486 despite Catholic elements of the Labor party warning her she would lose her preselection. In her book on the subject, Maria Tumarkin reminds us of the courage of migrants, those who leave their language and culture behind to seek a better life for themselves and their children in the “ruinous unknown.”

Gender may play a small role in courage and its more impulsive cousin, heroism. Women learn to give their lives for their children. Men learn that women, children and frail aged men come first. Mathematically, this gives men more people to protect, and so more opportunities to display courage, when the bullets start flying.

But the gender connection with courage may be on its way out, if its not part of the past already. Women today are doctors and emergency service workers, while men can be the primary carers of their kids. Using gender as a shorthand way of deciding who should be the hero in a modern crisis may be past its use -by date.

Publication history

Breaking the Glass Ceiling of Courage  The Sunday Sun-Herald (Sydney)