Call to courage: winning the battle of ideas
Battle of Ideas festival 2022, Sunday 16 October, Church House, London
Recent events have forced us to confront the meaning of courage. Priti Patel may have created a new award for civil bravery in one of her last acts as Home Secretary, but vulnerability has, for some time, been favoured more than valour. Witness the expansion of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from a rare condition – often associated with war-related trauma – to an everyday figure of speech. Today, there are those that even claim to suffer from PTSD after being ‘triggered’ by ‘harmful’ literary works or statues.
In this context, the impressive, against-all-odds resistance of the Ukrainian people against Russia’s invasion stands out. Thousands of ordinary farmers, factory workers, taxi drivers, professors and students courageously volunteered to take on the fourth largest power on earth because they believe that defending their national freedom is so important. Likewise, the recent protests in Iran have been inspirational – with women defying the brutality of the morality police to demand greater freedom from religious autocracy.
But courage is not just needed in times of war, or when under the thumb of authoritarian regimes. If once we talked about courage of convictions, today’s principle-lite, U-turning leaders illustrate how cancel culture makes cowards of far too many. In contrast, the heroism of Salman Rushdie or JK Rowling – in refusing to capitulate to censors, bullies or fatwas – shows that courage remains the political virtue par excellence, even if only espoused by a minority.
Do we all need to take a lesson from such examples of courage? Many have noted the dispiriting rise of so-called ‘bystanders’ – people who merely look on while evil unfolds in front of them. This is commonly noted with regards to people standing and filming acts of violence or bad behaviour, rather than intervening. Do slogans like ‘see it, say it, sorted’, encourage a passive, ‘let the authorities deal with it’ attitude – rather than an active, courageous one? Such an attitude may not even be limited to the public. Even police forces, like those on guard at the Manchester Arena before the bombing, or responding to a school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, have been accused of preferring passivity to intervention. Explanations range from social atomisation to fear of lawsuits or excessive bureaucracy. Whatever the reason, such generalised passivity is put into sharp focus by the actions of so-called ‘have-a-go-heroes’ – such as Folajimi Olubunmi-Adewole, who died heroically trying to rescue a drowning woman. In this era of safety first, risk aversion, and even nihilistic fatalism, do we need to draw on the older virtue of courage just to dare to live freely?
Today – at a time of enormous upheavals and significant political challenges – do we need to bring courage back into politics? There are certainly encouraging signs – do recent successes of gender-critical activists, the push back against diversity policies, or support for those threatened with being cancelled indicate new forms of solidarity? Can fighting back against the cost-of-living crisis, under the banner of Enough is Enough, forge a new movement? And as millions of UK citizens courageously refused to back down – and succeeded in forcing the establishment to ensure their democratic vote was not overturned – is the democratic Brexit spirit of taking back control ready to be rekindled?
journalist; author, Feminism for Women: the real route to liberation
Professor Sunetra Gupta
professor of theoretical epidemiology, Department of Zoology, University of Oxford; award-winning novelist
columnist, TheArticle; founder, the Contrarian Prize; infrastructure financier; DJ
columnist and leader writer, Daily Telegraph; author, Whatever Happened to Tradition? History, Belonging and the Future of the West
Brussels correspondent, The Times
director, Academy of Ideas; independent peer, House of Lords; author, I STILL Find That Offensive!