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on cowardice, courage and the abuse of language

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pretty much bog-standard definitions

pretty much bog-standard definitions

In this post I want to try to avoid politics, and to focus on the English language, its use and abuse. If you google the word ‘coward’, followed by the word ‘meaning’  (I often ask my NESB students to do this with words they don’t know), you’ll come up first with this definition: a person who is contemptibly lacking in the courage to do or endure dangerous or unpleasant things. Second comes this: [a person who is] excessively afraid of danger or pain.

These are, to me, bog-standard, uncontroversial definitions of the word ‘coward’. To be a coward is to be nothing more and nothing less than what these definitions describe.

So, as a person who cares about language, it disturbs and aggravates me that the word ‘coward’ is now regularly used by the media and by commentators of all kinds, from world leaders to pub philosophers, to refer to suicide bombers, mass shooters, Wikileakers and terrorists of every description. I would ask you to pause for a moment, and think of these categories of people, and the people themselves, if you can bear it. Think of, say, Thenmozhi Rajaratnam, a member of the Tamil Tigers and the suicide killer of Rajiv Ghandi and 14 others beside herself in 1991. Or Reem Riyashi, the wealthy Palestinian mother of two and Hamas operative who killed herself and 4 Israelis at the Erez Crossing in Gaza in 2004. Think of Martin Bryant, the murderer of 35 people at Port Arthur in Tasmania in 1996, or Anders Behring Breivik, killer of 77 people by bombing and gunfire in Norway in 2011. Think again of Bradley (now Chelsea) Manning, who leaked large quantities of classified US information to Wikileaks in early 2010, or Edward Snowden, recent leaker of classified documents from the USA’s National Security Agency to various media outlets. Now think finally of Mohamed Atta, a principal player in the September 11 2001 attacks in the USA, and pilot of the plane that crashed into the North Tower of the world trade centre, or Noordin Top, mastermind of several fatal bombings in Indonesia, and indefatigable recruiter and indoctrinator for the Jihadist organisation Jemaah Islamiya.

No doubt these characters will awaken many diverse thoughts, but it’s unlikely that cowardice would be part of your description of any of them, especially after having been primed with the definitions of a coward at the top of this post. It seems like describing any of these various characters as cowards would simply be what philosophers call a ‘category mistake’, so far from cowardly, in the bog-standard sense of that term, have been the actions that have made them notorious.

So what is going on here? Intellectual laziness? Overblown rhetoric? Well, yes and no. To dismiss this rhetoric of cowardice as just plain ignorant or lazy would be to miss the point of it, for there is method in this apparent madness, intended or not. The real point of describing any or all of these people as cowards is to remove them as far as possible from any association with another word, more or less directly opposed to cowardice: courage.

Courage is seen as positive of course. It’s seen as a virtue, yet when we delve further into it, as Socrates and his interlocutors did in the Laches, we find it be a more slippery concept than at first glance. It rather sticks in our craw, to say the least, to claim that Mohamad Atta was courageous in carrying out his mission to fly an unfamiliar Boeing 767 into the World Trade Centre, or that Thenmozhi Rajaratnam showed amazing courage in blowing herself up with Rajiv Ghandi and many others, or that Anders Brehvik displayed steely resolve and courage in carrying out his long-planned slaughter of scores of innocent children. The actions of Manning and Snowden have naturally received more mixed responses, with some feeling that the term ‘courageous’ is singularly apt in describing them, while others would baulk at the term.

So let’s perform the same operation on ‘courage’ as we did on the word ‘coward’. Here’s the very straightforward result:

Courage: the ability to do something that frightens one.

Now, it’s worth noting that this bog-standard definition, as with that of ‘coward’, has nothing whatever to say about the moral implications of the action or actions that the brave person engages in and the coward avoids. That action might be the slaughter, or the rescue, of thousands. This is key: the moral implications or the consequences of the actions are irrelevant to the definition. For some, it seems, this point is hard, if not impossible, to swallow. That’s the problem; because of the negative load that the term ‘coward’ carries, some people are determined to describe any action that they consider has negative consequences as cowardly. But to try to extend the meaning of the term from the bog-standard, more limited definition quoted at the top means moving away from consensus into a field of contestation that enormously diminishes the coherence and so the usefulness of the term.

I was prompted to write this piece because a recent editorial in a major Australian newspaper, attacking Edward Snowden as a coward, was brought to my attention. It was the last straw, you might say. I admit I haven’t read the editorial, and I can’t recall the newspaper, but really, you don’t need to read the detail – and I may well be convinced by the newspaper editor’s views of the implications of Snowden’s actions – to know that the application of the term ‘coward’ to Snowden’s leaking of classified information is just wrong, by the definition of terms.

This sort of thing should matter to those who respect language and its value as an effective communicative tool. By the bog-standard consensus definitions given above, we need to admit that the actions of Atta and Rajaratnam, for example, were courageous. As people in full possession of their faculties, as I assume they were, they would have had to overcome enormous fear and anxiety to perform their suicidal actions. Of course we can and should condemn their actions on a whole host of ethical grounds, but to call them cowardly doesn’t add anything to the ethical debate, it just muddies definitions (while allowing us to let off steam, to vent our indignation and disgust). It’s just name-calling.

contested definition no. 45737932

contested definition no. 45737932

contested definition no. 7353289
contested definition no. 7353289

contested definition no. 36921856

contested definition no. 36921856

contested definition no. 45210678 - but a pretty good one!

contested definition no. 45210678 – but a pretty good one!



Written by stewart henderson

January 8, 2014 at 9:30 am

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