Saturday, 12 January 2013

Not a coward

Is it wrong to call someone a coward? Is it just mean and unfair and insulting? If someone doesn't want to do something that's dangerous, shouldn't we respect their decision and not simply condemn them for it?

We all have different personalities. We each have our strengths and weaknesses, our particular resources and lack of them. Isn't it up to us to decide if we're capable of dealing with something, to estimate the dangers and consequences, and if we don't feel confident enough, to opt out and say we're not going to take the risk?

It's pretty high-handed and presumptuous of other people to say that someone is a coward, that they should have done what was expected of them regardless of their personal fears and uncertainties, that they should have jumped in and hoped for the best, and if they came a cropper that was just bad luck.

But if say, a woman was being gang-raped on a train by a bunch of particularly nasty-looking men, would we say it was our duty to tackle the rapists even if they might attack us too? If we saw someone inside a burning building, would it be our duty to run in and try to rescue them, even at the risk of being burnt alive? Surely that's the individual's decision and for someone else to accuse them of cowardice is impudent and uncalled-for. It's really an incredibly rude thing to say.

The flipside is that we heap lavish praise on someone we see as brave and courageous and fearless, as if they're some sort of super-hero, when in reality they may only have been doing their job, or only showing their natural strength and resilience. Why is someone "brave" given so much more respect than someone who's been less than brave - or not brave at all? Can't we just respect people's different capabilities and shortcomings? Why must cowardice be a cause for shame?


  1. I'm with you! But I'm afraid we're in the minority.

  2. Jean: You could be right. But isn't there something horribly macho about insisting people should be gung-ho daredevils?

  3. I am in total agreement with you. Bravery is an overrated quality which can often be called foolishness too.

  4. Ramana: It can often be just that. But I wouldn't want to denigrate anyone who has been genuinely brave and overcome personal fear and hesitation to do something very worthwhile.

  5. Cowards and heroes are words invented by the masters of the universe to encourage youth to be used as cannon fodder.

    I truly despise those words.


  6. Wisewebwoman, some wars are worth fighting.

    I have no problem with the words "hero" and "coward," perhaps it is all in how you define them.


  7. I think you have made an issue black or white when it isn't really. If you genuinely believe that intervening will only serve to get you hurt or killed as well, than I would not fault you for being too afraid. But I would if you didn't at least go for help as soon as it was safe. Or if you stood by and let your child drown because you are afraid of the water? Yes, I'd fault you. And then there is emotional cowardice. If you don't do what's right because you are afraid of what people will think of you? (Like stand there in apparent agreement while someone tells racist or homophobic jokes, say). There, too, I'd probably be unimpressed with you. Finally, the issue of heroism. If bravery is doing what needs to be done to help someone even in the face of fear, sometimes that is an act of heroism (and sometimes even people who are "just doing their jobs"). When you see a news account of someone who dives into icy waters to rescue another, why shouldn't we admire that person? Acknowledging their bravery isn't a slam against others who were too afraid or otherwise unwilling to help, it is just giving credit where credit is due.

  8. www: I agree with Leah. The words have meanings and are useful, but how we define and use them is the issue. I object to the word coward being thrown around thoughtlessly and unkindly. And I object to the word hero being elevated into something excessive.

  9. Agent: Thank you, that's a really interesting comment. I suppose what you're saying is that there are many situations where the only normal human response is to intervene and just put your fear to one side, and however you view someone who opts out, the only possible description of them is cowardly. Even if you respect their right to decide for themself what to do, they're still cowards.

    Well, maybe you're right. I have no clinching argument against that. But I still think it's harsh to dismiss someone as a coward when they may have weighed up the situation very carefully, they may have wanted very much to get involved, but finally decided not to.

    And yes, of course I admire someone heroic, but quite often the "hero" is the first to complain that people are making far too much fuss over an instinctive response to someone in trouble.

  10. Here - I commented on this, I KNOW I did, but it's gone!


    Here's what I think. Bravery and fearlessness are not the same things. They cannot co-exist, either, because by definition, being brave means conquering your fears and doing something despite them. If you can't feel fear, you can't be brave.

    As to the hypothetical scenarios, one has to know where the line is between bravery and foolhardiness. If being brave and going for something when you don't have the physical resources to follow it through successfully means that someone else is going get hurt, or have to come and clean up your mess, then it's not right to go ahead. For instance, a lone man tackling a gang of vicious thug rapists isn't going to get far. He's just going to provide the emergency services with another body to patch up. So he should find another way to help - phone the police, take pictures for evidence, whatever he can manage, even if it's hang around discreetly to get the woman some help afterwards.

    Same with the burning building: if all you're doing by rushing in is providing another corpse for someone to clean up, plus causing incredible distress to your family and friends, and you have no hope of success, don't do it, simple as that.

    But maybe I'm a coward!

  11. Jay: I think that's true that bravery involves overcoming fear. I also agree that if getting involved is just going to create more problems and injuries, then you should stand aside. But yes, you can do other things like phoning the police and taking photos. Or even noting descriptions of the rapists - what they were wearing, distinguishing features etc.

  12. I've always thought of myself as a militant coward.
    I am militant about my refusal to go skiing, scuba diving or abseiling.
    I would, however, think of myself as a real coward if I saw someone in trouble and didn't try to do something just because I as worried about my own skin.


  13. Some people just rush in without thinking about whether it is brave or even foolish, never mind cowardice. A case in point - the slurry tank disaster in Co Down a few months ago. One member of the family fell in and two others jumped in to save him. Alas, all were lost. A long pole or stick for the immersed person to grasp might have saved the first casualty without the need for further loss of life.

    Of course, it is easy with hindsight and distance to see the best option.

  14. Hero is a word that gets thrown around a lot, but I have to say that I have very rarely heard anyone use the word coward when describing someone who was at the scene of a crime and took cover to protect themselves. I think most of us have the first instinct of survival, not let-me-save-another.

  15. Macy: I hope I would also rush to help someone in trouble - provided I wasn't in serious personal danger though. Two lives lost wouldn't be much use to anyone.

    Grannymar: Indeed, some people rush in without thinking and it ends in disaster. A little caution is sometimes advisable.

    Bijoux: That's reassuring that you seldom hear the word coward. And yes, apparent cowardice might very well be a healthy survival instinct.

  16. I didn't use the word coward - it's not one I'd use when physical risk is the issue. I just said there are times when I think you are obliged to help if humanly possible. (There are times when you can't, for whatever reason.)

    And although people who do heroic/brave things are often insistent they are just doing what anyone else would do, the fact is that in those cases they are doing what they could in spite of great danger or fear. I still think that's laudable. I don't know that I'd have it in me.

  17. Agent: "There are times when I think you are obliged to help if humanly possible." I'd go along with that.

    I also agree that people may act in spite of great danger or fear, and I'm not sure I'd have the nerve to act either.

  18. I have a problem with the armed forces. When one is killed in the line of duty it's very sad - but they did join up of their own accord and are willing to shoot and kill other people.

    Which isn't really about being brave or cowardly, which is what you talk about in your post. Tra la.

    I am a coward, I am fairly certain of that. I won't even go on scary fairground rides. But I like to think that were someone weaker in danger I would attempt to help. Probably get myself killed in the process because I'm pretty useless!

  19. Liz: I agree with you about the armed forces. As you say, they sign up voluntarily knowing the risks they're exposing themselves to.

    I think we'd all want to help someone weaker and in danger. But of course if there was also an obvious danger to ourselves, we might very well hesitate.

  20. interesting question you raise.

    And in this instance, I will disagree with you. I will mock, pillory and denigrate anyone who 'chooses' to stand by and watch someone get hurt and die, because they are afraid.

    Fear is not a good enough reason not to help someone in dire need. There is always something that can be done. Ringing the emergency services, finding someone else to assist.

    I can tackle this from a personal, societal and NLP perspective.

    Instead of ranting on your comment thread, how about this:

    Imagine being the person who watched the gang rape on the bus and did nothing. Imagine being the person who stood outside of the burning building knowing the people inside were dying a horrible death.

    To live with the knowledge that fear won over compassion, must be the most crippling blow.

    Acting in the face of these situations, is compassion. There is nothing in life without risk. We risk every time we cross the road, get into a car/plane/bus/train. We risk when we love, when we care. To properly live, we must overcome fear. To let fear's a small death every day.

    And yes, it is personal. I do and will intervene.

    As is often quoted:

    "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing." Edmund Burke

  21. Roses: You put a powerful argument. But I would like to say that my doubts were about putting yourself in serious physical danger to the extent that you could also be severely injured or killed. I didn't say anything about phoning the emergency services or asking someone else to assist.

    Yes of course if you watched someone in distress and did nothing about it I'm sure you would feel guilty and inadequate afterwards, even if self-preservation was uppermost.

    But I don't think you can equate crossing the road with tackling a gang of rapists. There are levels and types of danger and some of them we can't actually cope with.

    So I still feel it's up to the individual, and not me, to decide whether to intervene or not. And if I was the one in distress, I think I would still respect that decision, however baffling it might be.

  22. I think the argument you make shows you've never experienced situations which have required these decisions. It's an academic discussion for a cold day.

    I have experienced these situations and I have intervened and I will again in a heartbeat.

    The reason why is very simple.

    One day it might be me on the bus, one day it might be me screaming in a burning building.

    And no, I wouldn't understand why someone stood by and played it safe. There is always something that can be done. Always.

  23. Roses: You're right, I've never experienced these situations. But even if it was me in the burning building, or being mugged, I still wouldn't expect someone else to risk their own life to save me, unless they were willing to do so. Call the police maybe. Take a note of the mugger's appearance maybe. But personally I wouldn't tackle someone with a knife or a baseball bat.

  24. I am with Roses, one hundred percent. I wouldn't as she says "mock, pillory and denigrate anyone who 'chooses' to stand by and watch someone get hurt and die, because they are afraid". However, I would probably sever all contact with you, make a note to myself to never rely on you, Nick, and most definitely not take you as my one and only companion to a desert island. Neither would I leave a child in your care. Indeed anyone.

    There are many ways to skin a cat and like Roses I have been, only recently, in hairy situations where I took it upon myself to intervene. Have I been beaten up or my face slashed yet? No. Are my teeth and my nose still straight? Yes. And I most certainly know that I have prevented untold damage to others. Do I bask in that glory? No. Because it came natural.

    We all have to live with our own conscience, and whilst I'd always advise to never actively seek (physical) confrontation I'd most certainly never stand by doing nothing. Never. Anyway, Nick, it comes down to basic human instinct, not debating with yourself whether you might damage your own hind whilst saving that of another.

    By the way, before I forget: I just love your phrasing "... if a woman was being gang-raped on a train by a bunch of particularly nasty-looking men, would we say it was our duty to tackle the rapists even if they might attack us too?"

    Nick, are you saying that if those rapists were a bunch of particularly NICE looking Arch Angel Gabriel type men you'd go and tap them on the shoulder and say: "Sorry, Sirs, but this is not the way forward.". Oh, Nick, if you can't see the irony I give up.

    Anyway, as I have said before you hold too much store on what people say about you. What does it matter whether someone calls you a coward or not? The only person who knows the answer to that is yourself.


  25. Ursula: Well of course severing all contact with me wouldn't make a lot of difference since we're only cyber rather than real friends. But looking after a child would obviously be very different from being on my own.

    Indeed, it comes down to basic human instinct and who knows what I would do in a real-life situation? I might dive in or I might flee.

    And I doubt if anyone else thought that "nasty-looking rapists" ruled out nice-looking rapists, but there you go.

    Yes, I do care what people say about me. How else do you judge the decency or otherwise of your behaviour?

  26. Well, Nick, that's about it: You say "... we're only cyber rather than real friends."

    ONLY 'cyber', is it? That's why I read your posts, think about them and take the time to answer them. Better stick and give my time to "real" friends then.

    For someone as sensitive as you are you sure know how to put the boot in.

    Nice to never have 'met' you.


  27. Ursula: Well, you can't have it both ways. You can't threaten to sever contact and then complain because I don't sound too bothered.

  28. Interesting question.

    Off the top of my head - I think cowardice is not acting in a way that you know you can and also know you should. (And you are the best and perhaps only judge of this - whether or not you share your verdict with others.)

    That does not mean throwing rational judgement out the window. Sometimes the more effective response to a situation is not to make a pointless gesture. So for instance - don't dive in to rescue a drowning person as a first resort - throw a lifebelt, lean in with a stick, etc. I hate those stories of people who drown rescuing their dogs.

  29. Paul: An interesting definition of cowardice, and a good one - knowing you're capable of acting but deliberately not doing so. But yes, those hasty gestures that end in further tragedies do emphasise that impulsive leaping-in is not always the best response.