ON THE PUNISHMENT OF COWARDICE
Cowardice- is it an innate, intrinsic part of a person’s being, like eye color or handedness or is it a choice over which we have at least some control? In Montaigne’s day this was a burning question for all those gentlemen whose status conferred upon them the obligation to carry a sword with them at all times. It was always going to be hard to hide from a challenge or a fight if you were expected to be armed just in case a challenge or fight presented itself. And it seems to be a subject of concern for men, not women. I suppose its because bravery was seen as part of a physical life, from which upper class women, apart from childbirth, were banned or spared, depending on your POV. Montaigne seems to think that it’s pretty bad either way. Running away, turning tail -which may be one of the origins of the word- Middle English: from Old French couard, based on Latin cauda ‘tail,’ possibly with reference to a frightened animal with its tail between its legs, (early 16th century.) Montaigne cites examples where cowardice is punished by a shaming that is handed down for generations or by immediate execution. Either way, cowardly acts were failings of the highest order. Simpler times, perhaps. Today there are so many ways a person of any class or gender (all along the continuum between male and female), ethnicity or nationality can be cowardly, and the punishments are not so straightforward, if they happen at all.
At least in the circle I lived in the longest, Northeastern US academia, physical danger wasn’t a big concern. Oh hardy souls might venture out to teach when there was a chance of glare ice, or from time to time make a threatening gesture at a driver who annoys us, but really, it’s not that much of a deal. Back when we lived in Hyde Park, the University of Chicago neighborhood, residents were encouraged to carry whistles to blow when they saw a crime happening, on the theory that enough piercing sounds would frighten away marauders or give someone the idea to call the (armed) police. A quick check informs me that WhistleStop is still going on- From the Hyde Park Kenwood Community Conference- Whistles can be kept in pockets or on key chains so that when confronted by trouble or observing trouble, it is easy to get to, Hoffman-Zoller said. We want criminals to know that Hyde Park is no longer safe for them, said Zoller.”We’re not playing, we will blow our whistles,” she said.I think this would have puzzled Montaigne, as it puzzled me somewhat the first time I heard whistles and saw a couple of U of C types run by me in the night wielding tennis rackets. That was some 50 years ago, not sure what they’d be wielding now.
But it doesn’t mean that that courage isn’t required of us, even in sleepy university towns where most of the physical danger comes from students who are drinking more than is wise. And it isn’t only grown men who need to be brave. These days, anyone who publicly steps out, and by steps out, I mean speaks out, on any side of any issue, has to be prepared to fend off attacks, which take generally take place in cyberspace. These attacks are for the most part anonymous, and devolve quite rapidly into insults, name calling and absurdities. And by fend off, I guess I mean ignore, because there is not much you can do. I once wrote a mild letter to the local newspaper defending the owner of a small coffeehouse that had its lease revoked due to falling behind on rent and was surprised to find myself the target of vitriol for my embrace of Communism and my hatred for America. Quite foolishly, I tried to shame people into saying their names, and I was mocked for that, by some letter writers who said how did they know I was who I said I was? In fact one even claimed to be me. I gave up writing letters that went on line. That might make me a coward, but I don’t care. It’s a game I have no wish to play, and if it’s a character defect, oh well, I guess I can live with that. I think the anonymous writers have the defect anyhow, but since I don’t know who they are, my contempt is pointless.
I have seen bravery as well, bravery of the highest order. Is it instinctive or a choice? My grandson, who might have been four at the time, was at an A league baseball game. If you’ve ever been to an A league park, you’ll know just how kid friendly those games are. If you haven’t you should treat yourself to one, and bring some children with you. This team was the local State College team, and the mascot was Ike the Spike, a white tailed deer, who conveniently walked around on two legs, dressed in a team uniform. Ike was wandering through the stands and stopped to greet my grandson and another little boy who was unknown to us. The mascot had the terrible idea of taking that little boy’s plastic souvenir bat and instead of autographing it, playing keep away. The poor child kept jumping for it, and the mascot kept teasing him not giving it back. My husband and I watched paralyzed by consternation as the little boy was on the verge of tears. Ike compounded his casual cruelty by holding the bat behind him. My grandson, in a flash of empathy, plucked the bat out of Ike’s hands and gave it to the child, who gratefully clutched it and ran off. My recollection is that Ike and Jackson went off together hand in hand, the young person who was the mascot probably grateful that he’d been rescued from his ham fisted attempt at engaging a young fan.
Where did that instinct come from? How did a four year old get the nerve to take on a totemic creature three times his size in order to help out a compatriot? Why didn’t I do anything? How many times have I missed that opportunity before and since? I don’t think I’m a coward, there are times when I’ve made a stand, not caring if the forces arrayed against me were greater. But generally I only take on fights I’m pretty sure I can win, or at the very least, ones in which I have nothing much to lose.
Is that genetic? Do I deserve to be punished for my moral failings? Or pitied? Does it matter, and who is going to know anyhow?
My acts of cowardice aren’t going to be on the public record, I don’t lead an army, I have no lands to defend. The same goes for my acts of courage. I have to live with the knowledge of what I do, that’s about it. And that goes for most of us. In fact, if I hadn’t seen my grandson snatch that bat, there wouldn’t be any record of it except in the mind of Ike the Spike, (who I hope learned something about the difference between fun and mean.) The two little boys were both young enough that they could easily have no memory of it. As it is we turned the whole incident into a story that we retell, it’s turned into a family legend. It simply might be our need to tell ourselves, “Don’t mess with us, we will blow our whistles.”