Courage is Everywhere

April 8, 2014

Associate Professor of Sociology Dan Stuhlsatz presents the third in a series of faculty essays about Mary Baldwin’s 2013–14 theme, Courage. The writings, which appear in The Cupola Now this semester, are intended to deepen understanding of the theme throughout the campus community. The four contributing faculty members represent each School of Excellence.stuhlsatz headshot

Stuhlsatz’s research includes work on educational attainment, race, religion, and environmental issues. His areas of interest include social movements, environmental sociology, community service, social inequality, sociology of education, sociology of religion, and mountaineering.

The annual college theme is chosen to unite the Mary Baldwin community around a central idea that fosters civic and global engagement. The theme gives definition to the academic year and a way to link together the work of students, faculty, and staff from all disciplines and programs.

Courage is Everywhere

When I teach about social movements, I am often amazed at the remarkable courage of those who join and lead efforts to “change the world.” One focus of the course is on “nonviolent” movements. Gandhi was one of the most influential theorists and practitioners of nonviolence. For this reason, I usually show the first 30 minutes or so of the film documenting his life. This covers Gandhi’s early work in South Africa.

One scene comes to mind. Imagine yourself at the front of a group of protesters marching down a dusty road on a hot day toward a mine. Your purpose?  To oppose “pass laws” intended to control the movements of “colored people.”  In front of you, ranks of policeman on horses appear, slowly moving toward you, in formation. Their leader shouts orders; they stop and draw their weapons. And then they charge, their horses spurred to a full run. Their purpose is clear: your physical destruction. Your response?  All of you lie down. When the horses arrive, their masters cannot force them to trample you, and for some time their hooves are frantically pounding in front of your face on the ground — before the horses, and their mounts, retreat to where they came from.

We all recognize the remarkable courage in this scene. When we consider a life such as Gandhi’s, courage can seem a rare, exceptional gift, something that is beyond the reach of most of us. However, sociological analysis would indicate otherwise. If courage is the will to act in the face of fear and uncertainty, then history tells us that courage is a characteristic of every generation. In addition, the dynamics of group formation tell us that courage is an elemental property of social life. It is there among us, in us, in every social relationship and in every enduring group.

Consider history. Every decade of the long nightmare of segregation produced its compliment of brave souls who violated the laws and customs mandating separate facilities, or who married and formed families across racial lines. Some of these actions were formally documented, but I think that we can assume that most such actions were lost to memory, as is most of history. It was only when the historical circumstances were “right” that a few of these acts of courage in a particular generation became the collective courage of a nonviolent movement that changed history.

Consider the process of creating and maintaining groups, the “atoms” of social life. There are two steps to this. The first is the ability to understand others and to create, with them, a world filled with meaning. We can see the courage in others, because we can appreciate, to a remarkable extent, how the world looks through their eyes. In the second step, we use this understanding to create the rules and boundaries of group life, the norms that enable us to work together, to live together, and to create together. The group formation process is simple, yet profound: we constantly sanction each other. We approve, or disapprove, of everyone, all the time, subtly, openly. We judge, blame, thank, frown, smile, confront, suggest, advise, oppose, support, caution, encourage, warn — every day. In this way, we create the content and boundaries of every group.

For each of us, this means that social life is a constant negotiation for a respectable self-identity — that is, a self-identity approved by others. There is an elemental courage in the presentation of our selves to each other everyday. Courage is required to deal with those who choose to disapprove of us, and perhaps to stigmatize us, reducing our identity to a few characteristics that they happen to find objectionable. There’s a basic vulnerability to everyday social life that requires an element of courage if we are to elicit and maintain the respect of others. At least some respect from at least some others is essential to our survival.

This elemental courage can develop further in at least two ways. One is the capacity to respect ourselves, to honestly observe and understand ourselves — warts and all — in a constructive, rather than in a denigrating, manner. Another is the capacity to extend empathy and respect to those that we have chosen to disapprove of.

Another part of the film “Gandhi” depicts these elements of courage. This scene takes place in a community that Gandhi has established in which everyone has relatively equal social status. For example, everyone is expected to take their turn at “raking and covering the latrine,” a task traditionally relegated to the “untouchables” of Gandhi’s native India. Gandhi’s wife, Kasturbai, refuses this task. His response is sudden anger and in his rage he attempts to expel her from the community. Then, as suddenly as his anger emerged, he steps back and sees himself, “warts and all,” as a source of pain and oppression. He finds the courage to do so constructively, and to apologize. In response, she reconsiders and chooses to rake and cover the latrine. I think that their coming together, through self-awareness, is one of the greatest acts of mutual courage depicted in the film. This kind of courage is the foundation from which we gain the capacity to become part of the more dramatic events that characterize nonviolent movements.

The ubiquity of courage does not lessen the legacy of such remarkable “change-makers” as Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. It enables us to perform courage with them. It helps us to appreciate that we must stand up for ourselves, understand ourselves, and develop empathy for ourselves and others (all others, everyday) if we are to create the kind of mutual respect that can truly “change the world.”