Courage and Cowardice

I’ve come across two recent think pieces online urging the assaulted and harassed to reclaim the word “victim.” The idea is supposedly this: that by refusing to accept the label of victim, one implies that there is something wrong with being a victim. I furrowed my brow, then realized with a blinding flash what’s missing in the discussions of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and toxic masculinity. What’s missing is the topic of courage, and its opposite, cowardice. That’s a topic we need to bring out in the open. It’s also a topic that may help us communicate with all the well-intentioned men who seem bewildered about what the rules are for approaching women today.

My favorite definition of courage comes from a fairy tale I read as a little girl, about a child who is terrified to fight a dragon, but fights it anyway. The moral of the story imprinted itself on my heart and mind at the tender age of seven: Courage is feeling the fear and doing it anyway. 

Let’s get this out of the way right now: being a victim is morally neutral. It does not confer any moral superiority or moral high ground; it likewise does not brand with moral inferiority. Victimization happens. The world is a brutal and vicious place pocked with shallow mass graves.

Victimization happens to courageous people and to cowards.

Fear, the automatic response of the sympathetic nervous system to threats, is a state of fight, flight, or freeze. We are told that women are unusually apt to freeze.

Boys are taught at a young age that freezing when challenged is an act of cowardice, and cowardice is to be avoided. I happen to believe that is correct.

Whether you’re about to give birth, or being attacked with a lethal weapon, the courageous response is the active response. Dealing with the energy of your fear, transforming it to calm strength or righteous anger, is a learned skill.

One of the most disempowering traits of sexism is its implication that courage is a masculine trait, cowardice a feminine one. The only acceptable archetype for a woman who rages and fights back is that of a mother bear fighting for her cubs. But not herself, never herself. The feminine does not own itself, does it?

But we do. We own our bodies and the space we occupy. And with that sacred ownership comes a sacred responsibility: to defend and protect ourselves with all the courage we can muster.

And why do we have that sacred responsibility? Because the courageous are less likely to be victims.

We owe ourselves the courage to say, “I was just talking; let me finish.” We owe ourselves the courage to say, “Please don’t touch me again.” We owe ourselves the courage to say, “Get the fuck away from me, weirdo!” We owe ourselves the courage to slap, punch, elbow, kick, bite, stab, and shoot if necessary to defend ourselves.

And sometimes, for a woman or for a man, that courage doesn’t come. The boy slumps and shuffles away from the bully; the woman allows herself to be pawed rather than make a scene. Sometimes it’s because we are picking our battles. Sometimes it’s because we are too exhausted to face yet another confrontation. Regardless, it amounts to the same thing.

That’s cowardice.

I have tasted that cowardice; I’ve bled and wept (literally) because I was a coward. I have also faced attacks with courage and been a victim anyway. And from those experiences, I have learned that we sometimes find our courage later on. Sometimes years later, we find the courage to speak, seeking retribution and redress, and warning those who come behind us. Sometimes that courage redeems our cowardice. Sometimes it brings on new assaults to test our courage further.

Let me ask you this, oh feminist sister, who wants the men she meets to stand up to other men about their bad behavior: why should they have the courage to stand up for us, if we don’t have the courage to stand up for ourselves?

Let me ask you this, oh well-intentioned straight man, who feels terrified to sexually approach a woman for fear of being accused: why would you involve yourself with a woman if you’re not sure if she’s a coward?

But let’s take this out of the arena of the eternal war between the sexes for a moment: let’s paraphrase the Irishman Edmund Burke and point out that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing. Let’s then hop forward to the 20th century, and soldiers who were only following orders, and the pastor who said nothing when they came for the homosexuals because he was not a homosexual. Now let’s move up to the 21st century and all those millions who watched a Nobel Peace Prize winner drop tens of thousands of bombs on innocent civilians with surreal serenity, and let a man languish alone in a small room in London without a peep.

The courage to speak up is not domain-specific. If you are too much of a coward to speak up, you are already a victim.

Armenian women ready to fight Ottomans

Photo: historical photo of Armenians preparing to fight the Ottomans.