“When Hobson called for seven volunteers to go with him to what promised to be certain death, four thousand men responded–the whole fleet, in fact. Because all the world would approve. They knew that; but if Hobson’s project had been charged with the scoffs and jeers of the friends and associates, whose good opinion and approval the sailors valued, he could not have got his seven.”
When Mark Twain wrote these words in his 1901 essay The United States of Lyncherdom, he was lamenting a pervasive shortcoming of the human condition that was allowing an epidemic of lynching to flourish across the American South: moral cowardice. Physical courage has always been in plenty supply, he wrote, and Twain noted how U.S. Navy Lieutenant Richmond Hobson had no problem getting seven volunteers to join him in a suicide mission in the recent Spanish-American War. In fact, the entire U.S. fleet volunteered, but Twain was quick to add that Hobson would have been pretty lonely if he had asked the men to do something that affected their peers’ opinions of them. You can get 4,000 men to volunteer for a suicide mission, the author penned, “because all the world would approve” of those who risked their bodies in acts of physical courage. As one of our greatest observers of human nature, Twain suggested that only 1 in 10,000 have the kind of courage that can make a person stand up within a crowd of his angry friends and tell them that they’re wrong. And this is what he termed moral cowardice: when you are afraid to do what is right because it will make you unpopular.
I bring this up because of a small but unique controversy that was provoked when Bruce Jenner announced to the world that he is now Caitlyn Jenner. In response to those who called Jenner’s announcement “heroic,” there have been some who say that applying this term to him is a misuse. These people say “hero” is a word that should be applied to physical courage, pointing specifically to soldiers who have volunteered for combat.
This is the very point of Twain’s essay. There are different kinds of courage. There is physical courage, and there is moral courage. But moral courage is far more difficult to develop, and as such it is far more rare in the world. I would add that to learn moral courage, one has to learn the more common type first.
Through my own experiences, I agree with Twain. When I was about to get out of high school, my career goal was to be an officer in the U.S. Army. I had an ROTC scholarship, but I also had a few problems. The first was severe inflammatory bowel disease. I was literally bleeding from my rectum and couldn’t run a half mile. My ulcerative colitis was so bad that I knew the rigorous physical training would likely end up killing me. The second problem was being in a family with a military tradition going back hundreds of years. On my dad’s side alone, his cousin received the Medal of Honor at Pearl Harbor, another was the commander of the first submarine into Tokyo Bay, and his great-uncle had died on the U.S.S. Maine. His brother volunteered for three tours of duty in Vietnam. My mom’s uncle left New York City to volunteer for service in the Eagle Squadrons of the Royal Air Force. Her great-grandfather was barely a teenager when he served as a flag bearer in the Army of the Potomac, and there was no more dangerous duty in a 19th Century army than that. I grew up in some pretty big shadows, and as scared as I was at what I knew would be an unfortunate outcome for me, I made sure I showed up to the physical with a letter from Johns Hopkins saying I was fit for duty despite the colitis. To my relief, the physician looked at the letter and asked me why I bothered to even show up. (My mom and dad didn’t think I was going to pass it anyway, but being parents they were going to let me find out myself.)
Like Mark Twain said, as a youth I had the physical courage to face mortal injury if it meant not experiencing what I thought would be the shame of my family. But to even feel that fear meant that I did not yet possess the moral courage to tell myself that my family’s opinions didn’t matter. That courage came as a side effect with surviving the colitis and the two life-threatening diseases that followed it (shameless book plug!). I’ve had sporadic episodes of moral courage since then, like when I had to be the one to bring up the uncomfortable subject of a popular adult community leader who had a problem with making sex jokes to kids when other adults were not around. But if I hadn’t developed the physical courage from having faced so much trauma from the illnesses, I never could have handled the level of scorn I received from those who didn’t want to believe me.
Twain never remarked on the unfortunate irony of experiencing moral courage: it makes you very aware with how weak and cowardly you really are, and it’s not a good feeling. This is why when I consider how Bruce Jenner stood up to a mocking world and announced that he is now Caitlyn Jenner, I feel uncomfortable. I feel uncomfortable because I know I could never be that brave.
I salute you, Caitlyn Jenner, for being a more courageous human being than I am.
Matt Haarington, MPH, MSHI is an advisor on public policy and health care issues for Social Justice Solutions. He is the author of The Spider and the Wasp, which is the funniest book you’ll ever read about being traumatized.
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