In 1965, civil rights activist John Lewis helped lead 600 marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, walking headlong into the violence of fire hoses, tear gas, and stick-wielding state police. Lewis would later be elected to Congress, in part for his bravery in the face of adversity.
That was then.
Today, a handful of hackers threaten American moviegoers over a cheesy comedy, and a national panic ensues. We’re unwilling to brave the travails of mall parking and $8 sodas in the defense of free speech.
Sony Pictures certainly had multiple motives for pulling “The Interview” from theaters, but it is undeniable that fear was key. So too with national cinema chains that preemptively announced they wouldn’t play it. And even if they had, surveys showed a shocking number of Americans who said they would stay away from the Cineplex altogether if Seth Rogen’s movie were there.
(After sitting through “Neighbors,” I know the feeling)
Why would Sony — a high-tech company whose product can be viewed on a Kindle Fire — cave to threats from apparent allies of a country where practically the highest technology is actual fire?
Courage. Or rather, a lack thereof.
Courage; the notion that resolve in the face of difficulties and strife is a good thing, has withered as a cultural virtue. And it’s dying because we have smothered its source: adversity. There can be no courage without fear. There can be no bravery without danger — even the miniscule danger of comedy-inspired cinematic terror.
Complete risk-aversion leads to the death of courage. This is the non-negotiable proposition every person and society face.
Unfortunately, as a nation America looked at this deal and said, we’ll take it! If living in a land without risk means accepting a culture without courage, we’re fine with that.
Except that there is a problem. Adversity cannot be banned entirely. It falls from the skies in hurricanes, tornadoes, and ice storms. It pounds greedily on our door when it thinks we’re unprepared and the police are unavailable. It flies in on airplanes, with evil plans and box cutters. It comes via email, tweet, and post from unnamed hackers. It is always — always — floating about, ready to interrupt normal life at a moment’s notice.
Affluent suburbanites may believe courage is passé, that they’ve achieved real security by living in good neighborhoods, installing home security systems, and in this case, staying away from theaters. They think they’ve barricaded their lives forcefully enough to keep danger forever at bay. Most of the time, they’re right, but every once in a while they’re wrong. Anyone who dies fat, happy, and unafraid in their beds without ever having faced a moment of danger has done so not through careful planning but sheer, dumb luck.
Most of us won’t be that lucky. More importantly, most of our children won’t either. One day, they will turn and find danger staring them in the face. And whether it’s the darkness of human nature or the mindless violence of mother nature, they’re going to need courage to bear it.
Will they have that strength? Will they even understand the danger when it finds them, or will they desperately pound the screens of their iPhone demanding, “Where’s the app for this?”
Bowing to pressure from pals of North Korea over a movie is hardly the death knell of the republic. But what happens when the next threat comes — over a movie about Islam-inspired terrorism, or a documentary opposed by radical environmentalists, or whatever else annoys an angry activist group with internet access? When the threat increases, will our willingness to face it and bear the consequences increase as well?
Courage is the essential virtue. What good is intelligence, if you’re not strong enough to stand up for good ideas? What’s the point of moral understanding if you lack the guts to do the right thing? What help is love if you don’t have the heart to defend those precious to you? Without courage, then prudence, wisdom, charity — every virtue on the list — all come to naught.
Most of us will never have to run to the sound of guns. But let’s not run away from the opening credits.
Michael Graham, an Atlanta-based talk host, contributed to the new book, The Seven Deadly Virtues (Templeton Press, 2014)