To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.
Let me suggest, finally, that the world of techno-consumerism is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn.
Its first line of defense is to commodify its enemy. You can all supply your own favorite, most nauseating examples of the commodification of love. Mine include the wedding industry, TV ads that feature cute young children or the giving of automobiles as Christmas presents, and the particularly grotesque equation of diamond jewelry with everlasting devotion. The message, in each case, is that if you love somebody you should buy stuff.
A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb “to like” from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving. The striking thing about all consumer products — and none more so than electronic devices and applications — is that they’re designed to be immensely likable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. (I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.)
But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.
If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).
Consumer technology products would never do anything this unattractive, because they aren’t people. They are, however, great allies and enablers of narcissism. Alongside their built-in eagerness to be liked is a built-in eagerness to reflect well on us. Our lives look a lot more interesting when they’re filtered through the sexy Facebook interface. We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery.
And, since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don’t have to have contempt for its manipulability in the way we might with actual people. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.
I may be overstating the case, a little bit. Very probably, you’re sick to death of hearing social media disrespected by cranky 51-year-olds. My aim here is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of technology and the problem of actual love. My friend Alice Sebold likes to talk about “getting down in the pit and loving somebody.” She has in mind the dirt that love inevitably splatters on the mirror of our self-regard.
The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.
Suddenly there’s a real choice to be made, not a fake consumer choice between a BlackBerry and an iPhone, but a question: Do I love this person? And, for the other person, does this person love me?
There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.
This is not to say that love is only about fighting. Love is about bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with his or her struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.
The big risk here, of course, is rejection. We can all handle being disliked now and then, because there’s such an infinitely big pool of potential likers. But to expose your whole self, not just the likable surface, and to have it rejected, can be catastrophically painful. The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking.
And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived. Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll get to that love and pain stuff later, maybe in my 30s” is to consign yourself to 10 years of merely taking up space on the planet and burning up its resources. Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a consumer.
When I was in college, and for many years after, I liked the natural world. Didn’t love it, but definitely liked it. It can be very pretty, nature. And since I was looking for things to find wrong with the world, I naturally gravitated to environmentalism, because there were certainly plenty of things wrong with the environment. And the more I looked at what was wrong — an exploding world population, exploding levels of resource consumption, rising global temperatures, the trashing of the oceans, the logging of our last old-growth forests — the angrier I became.
Finally, in the mid-1990s, I made a conscious decision to stop worrying about the environment. There was nothing meaningful that I personally could do to save the planet, and I wanted to get on with devoting myself to the things I loved. I still tried to keep my carbon footprint small, but that was as far as I could go without falling back into rage and despair.
BUT then a funny thing happened to me. It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one-half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.
And so, yes, I kept a meticulous list of the birds I’d seen, and, yes, I went to inordinate lengths to see new species. But, no less important, whenever I looked at a bird, any bird, even a pigeon or a robin, I could feel my heart overflow with love. And love, as I’ve been trying to say today, is where our troubles begin.
Because now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it — was considerably worse, in fact — but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of animals I loved.
And here’s where a curious paradox emerged. My anger and pain and despair about the planet were only increased by my concern for wild birds, and yet, as I began to get involved in bird conservation and learned more about the many threats that birds face, it became easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain.
How does this happen? I think, for one thing, that my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject.
Which is what love will do to a person. Because the fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.
When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might love some of them.
And who knows what might happen to you then?Continue reading the main story
‘One coward may lose a battle, one battle may lose a war, and one war may lose a country.’ This was Rear-Admiral and Conservative MP Tufton Beamish speaking to the House of Commons in 1930, giving voice to an idea that must be as old as war itself. Caring only for his own safety, blowing cover, attracting fire, the coward can be more dangerous to his own side than a brave enemy. Even when he doesn’t run, the coward can sow panic simply by the way he looks – changing colour, as Homer observed in the Iliad, unable to sit still, his teeth chattering. Cowards are also known for soiling themselves.
No wonder soldiers in the field worry about being cowardly far more than they dream of being heroic; or why cowardice is often counted the most contemptible of vices (not just by soldiers): while heroes achieve fame, cowards are often condemned to something worse than infamy – oblivion. As Dante’s guide Virgil says of the cowardly neutrals who reside in the anteroom of hell: ‘the world will let no report of them endure’. Virgil himself doesn’t want to speak of them. Yet speaking about cowards and cowardice can help us judge and guide human conduct in the face of fear.
‘Fear,’ Beamish went on to say, ‘is perfectly natural. It comes to all people. The man who conquers fear is a hero, but the man who is conquered by fear is a coward, and he deserves all he gets.’ But things are not quite so simple as that: some fears are unconquerable. Aristotle said that only the Celts do not fear an earthquake or flood, and we are right to think them crazy. The coward, he said, is ‘a man who exceeds in fear: he fears the wrong things, in the wrong manner, and so forth, all the way down the list’.
We typically judge someone cowardly when his fear is out of proportion to the danger he faces, when he is defeated by such fear, and in consequence fails to do something he should: his duty. We also typically reserve the cowardly label for men, as Aristotle’s and Beamish’s sexist language suggests. Even today, the term sounds strange when it is applied to women, and seems to need some explanation.
If, as Beamish tells us, a coward deserves all he gets, what exactly does he get? Beamish was speaking against a proposal to end the death penalty for cowardice and desertion. His logic was clear. If a coward can cost a country its existence, the country needs to be willing to deprive the coward of his.
The practice of killing cowards has a long and varied history. The Romans sometimes executed cowards through fustuarium, a dramatic ritual that would begin when the tribune touched the condemned with his cudgel, at which signal all soldiers in the camp would bludgeon the man to death. The preferred modern way is the firing squad. The British and French shot hundreds of soldiers for cowardice and desertion in the First World War; the Germans and Russians, tens of thousands in the Second World War.
Humiliation is a much more usual punishment for cowardice, as Montaigne noted in ‘Of the Punishment of Cowardice’ (1580). Quoting Tertullian’s observation that it is better to make the blood rush to a man’s face than flow from his body, Montaigne explained the thinking: a coward who is allowed to live might be shamed into fighting courageously. The ways of humiliation are even more various than those of killing – from dressing up the coward as a woman, to branding or tattooing him, to shaving his head and making him wear a placard that says ‘coward’, to naming him and recounting his ignominious deeds in his hometown newspaper.
Whether the coward dies or lives, his punishment must be public if it is to fit his crime. In trying to run and hide, the coward threatens the group by setting the worst sort of example and spreading fear like an infection; one coward makes 10, as a German proverb has it. The spectacle of the coward caught and exposed serves as a kind of inoculation for those who witness it, complete with a stinging reminder of the price should they themselves give in to cowardice.
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Evolutionary psychologists have had little to say about cowardice, perhaps because it seems such an obvious case of following the evolutionary imperative to preserve the self. But there is widespread agreement that natural selection can favor uncowardly, co‑operative, even altruistic behaviors. Many animals engage in ‘fitness sacrificing’ – advancing another’s chance to live (and reproduce) by risking their own lives. Upon seeing a prowling fox, a rabbit thumps its foot and raises its rear to flash a furry white alarm to its fellows, even though doing so draws dangerous attention to itself. Rabbits that thump increase the survival rate of their relations, which gives the thumper’s genes a better chance of being passed on – if only by way of a sister or brother or cousin – thereby creating more rabbits that thump.
But rabbits do not attack those who fail to thump, and while aggression within species is very common, no animals other than humans are known to punish a conspecific for not performing expected fitness-sacrificing acts. A recent study by Keith Jensen and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in 2012, suggests that even one of our closest relatives, the chimpanzee, does not engage in such ‘third-party’ punishment; it might be a uniquely human practice.
when it comes to war, effectiveness at punishing (and preventing) cowardice improves one’s chances of winning
Third-party punishment of cowardice can happen even without the benefit of an organised military or centralised political system, as Sarah Mathew and Robert Boyd showed in PNAS in 2011. These anthropologists, then at the University of California in Los Angeles, study the Turkana, a ‘pre‑state’ East African people – egalitarian pastoralists who sometimes raid other groups to steal their cattle. If a Turkana man refuses to go on a raid without good reason or flees when danger comes, he can be subject to punishment ranging from ‘informal verbal sanctions’ to severe corporal punishment, including being tied to a tree and whipped. The fact that third parties (and not just kin, neighbours or people endangered by the coward’s actions) participate in the punishment process enables the practice on a large scale, and when it comes to war, all other things being equal, effectiveness at punishing (and preventing) cowardice improves one’s chances of winning.
The Turkana admire and reward bravery in combat, but Mathew and Boyd note that if positive incentives were enough to motivate men to always do the right thing during raids, ‘there would be no need for direct punishment’. They conclude that such punishment does not just enable large-scale co‑operation. It is essential to it. To put it in Beamish’s terms, if one coward can lose a country, and the country is not willing to condemn the coward, then the country itself might be condemned.
Curiously, though, we have become less willing to condemn or punish cowardice with the passing years. Beamish lost the debate. Parliament abolished the death penalty for cowardice and desertion in April, 1930. Other countries have acted similarly, some in the letter of the law and many more in practice. Under US military code, desertion remains punishable by death during wartime, but since 1865 only one soldier, Private Eddie Slovik, has been executed for it (or any other military crime – rape and murder are a different story), and that was in 1945. Courts-martial for cowardice have become increasingly rare, and many of the European soldiers who were executed for cowardice or desertion in the world wars have been posthumously pardoned. Some countries have monuments honouring them.
There are many reasons for this shift. Foremost is what Ernest Thurtle, the Labour MP who had long campaigned to abolish the death penalty for military crimes, called in the debate with Beamish ‘the almost indescribable strain of modern warfare’. Surely there has always been great strain in warfare, and the military historian Martin van Creveld, for one, doubts that the strain has worsened in modern times, or that suffering through artillery bombardment could be any more traumatic than watching one’s kin get scalped alive. But it’s not unreasonable to think that the scale of modern warfare – its ability to inflict greater damage over greater distance for prolonged periods of time – has produced a greater strain than before. If the Celts did not fear an earthquake, the bombings of Tokyo, Dresden or London might have given them pause.
When it comes to cowardice, whether the strain of modern war is unprecedented is less important than the perception that it is. Shell shock, when that diagnosis was first made in 1915, was thought to be caused by explosives more powerful than the world had ever seen. New weapons must cause new diseases. New terms were needed to explain strange symptoms – tremors, dizziness, disorientation, paralysis – that in women would have been attributed to hysteria. As Elaine Showalter pointed out in The Female Malady (1985), ‘shell shock’ sounded much more masculine.
Seemingly ‘cowardly’ conduct is not a matter of character or manliness but genes, environment, trauma
Even when doctors concluded that shell shock was a purely psychological disorder, the term stuck and became the first of a series of terms (‘war neurosis’, ‘battle fatigue’, ‘post-traumatic stress disorder’) that gave official, alternative ways to, as Thurtle put it, ‘judge the men who had failed with a much deeper sympathy and understanding’. The point is not that soldiers thus diagnosed were actually cowards, but that misconduct that previously would have been considered to reflect a defect in character or a corruption of gender identity was now more likely to be seen as a sign of illness. Monolithic ideas of masculinity were thus complicated and challenged. Moral judgment gave way to medical treatment.
This shift has advanced as medicine has advanced. Thanks to new neurological tests that can detect evidence of blast injuries to the brain that would have gone undetected even a decade and certainly a century ago, researchers have revived the original hypothesis about shell shock – that it had a physical cause. We also know more about how physiological factors such as the formation of the amygdala and cortisol levels make different people constitutionally more or less able to deal with fear. Seemingly ‘cowardly’ conduct (quotation marks rather suddenly become necessary) is not a matter of character or manliness – it’s a matter of genes, environment, trauma. Given this shift, it is not surprising that, according to the Google Ngram corpus, usage of ‘coward’ and ‘cowardice’ declined by half relative to all English words published over the course of the 20th century.
Even as cowardice has lost linguistic currency, however, contempt for it has not disappeared. A century of the therapeutic has not undone millennia of revilement. It shadows even the terms that give us an alternative way of understanding soldiers’ trauma-related derelictions of duty; soldiers are ashamed to seek psychiatric help because it can be seen as cowardly. And one still hears ‘coward’ used pejoratively, as a label for terrorists, paedophiles and other predatory criminals. It’s an unreflective and coarse misapplication of the term, but it shows that the insult endures, even as the idea behind it becomes foggier.
Paedophiles might be cowardly in not confronting their predilections (and their dreadful consequences), and terrorists might indeed be guilty of having what might be called the cowardice of their convictions – an excessive fear of being viewed as cowardly in the eyes of their god, or by the light of their cause. But when we hurl ‘coward’ at such villains it’s usually just a way of expressing contempt for those who take advantage of the vulnerable or helpless. It can feel good, but it can also distract us from pondering our own cowardice and deprive us of an ethical tool that can be useful, and not just to soldiers or men.
‘We all of us suffer from fear,’ Beamish said as he stood before the House of Commons. ‘I am suffering from it at the present moment, but I should be a coward if I sat down and did not say what I feel.’
What he felt was, I think, wrong. To execute someone for cowardice ignores, among other things, what we have learned about human limits in the face of the horrors of modern war. Yet I respect Beamish for not sitting down, and I appreciate how he exploited the shame of cowardice to brace himself for daunting political battle. Though he believed that the man who conquers fear is a hero, I respect Beamish also for the way he does not congratulate himself for heroism. He sets an example worth following the next time you want to speak up for a cause because you think it’s the right thing to do, even if the prospect frightens you. Telling yourself to be a hero might be no more help to you than it is to a soldier. It’s too grand a notion, and the word has been emptied by overuse. (The same might be said of ‘courage’.) But telling yourself it would be cowardly not to stand up and speak might actually get you out of your seat.
‘perhaps we need a coward in the room when we are talking about nuclear war’
The stigma attached to cowardice has caused terrible harm, most obviously to those who have been made to pay for the alleged ‘crime’. Less obvious, but more pervasive, is the damage done by people who, fearing the shame of cowardice, have acted in reckless, often violent ways. Remembering this should make us less ready to use the label of ‘coward’, especially in the case of someone refusing to use violence.
Too often, in retrospect, we realise that a refusal to fight was neither spineless nor craven, but prudent, even courageous. After advising President Kennedy to compromise with the Soviets during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the US ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson observed that ‘most of the fellows will probably consider me a coward… but perhaps we need a coward in the room when we are talking about nuclear war’. Samuel Johnson noted that ‘mutual cowardice’ keeps us in peace.
Yet the stigma of cowardice can make it a powerful guide and goad for our conduct, and not just in battle or political combat, where Beamish contended, but wherever fear and duty conflict.
We all face similar moral reckonings – instances where the bracing shame of cowardice can be more useful than the exalted dream of heroism – in all sorts of other contexts, including the most personal. And, alas, sometimes it seems as though we all let duty give way to fear, all the time. Mark Twain wrote of ‘man’s commonest weakness, his aversion to being unpleasantly conspicuous, pointed at, shunned, as being on the unpopular side. Its other name is Moral Cowardice, and is the supreme feature of the make-up of 9,999 men in the 10,000’. It is so common, so normal, that it does not feel like cowardice at all.
That might be because the first thing cowardice does, as the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard argued, is to keep ‘a man from knowing what is the good, the truly great and noble, what ought to be the goal of his striving and of his labour early and late’. But thinking about cowardice, pondering the age-old contempt that, for better and worse, still clings to the idea, can concentrate our minds as we work out exactly what we should be doing, and help us confront the fears that keep us from doing it.
In some curious and perhaps contradictory ways, I seek to defend cowardice, first against the coarse and thoughtless application of the term. This has done terrible damage, most obviously to those who have been humiliated or even killed for their alleged cowardice. Even when there might be an element of cowardice in someone’s conduct, we would do well to cultivate a ‘deeper sympathy and understanding’, to use Thurtle’s phrase, in our judgment of them.
Louis-Ferdinand Céline goes further in his novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932) about the First World War and its aftermath. Fearing that he is ‘all alone with two million stark raving heroic madmen, armed to the eyeballs’, his narrator congratulates himself for having ‘sense enough to opt for cowardice once and for all’. Céline presents bravery as the problem, and cowardice as the solution. Stevenson saw things similarly. There are compelling reasons to accept such a position even when we’re not talking about nuclear war; Johnson, after all, noted that ‘mutual cowardice’ keeps us in peace.
But I don’t want to embrace cowardice entirely, and so the second way I want to defend cowardice stands in contrast to the first. The contempt we still typically feel toward cowardice can concentrate our minds as we think about exactly what we should be doing, and about the fears that keep us from doing it. The idea of cowardice can inform our thinking not just in battle or in the obvious combat of politics, where Beamish draws on it. How we love, who and where we are, what we do, what we think, even what we know and allow ourselves to know – sometimes it seems as though these have all been shaped by overblown fears and evasions of duty, held for so long that they feel like normalcy. Pondering cowardice can help us overcome them.
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is Acting Director of the Arts & Sciences Writing Programme at Boston University. His latest book is Cowardice: A Brief History (2014).