Friday, March 13, 2009

More on Courage as a Masculine Value

I recently posted two views on courage as a masculine value, by Harvey Mansfield, the author of Manliness, and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, author of Infidel and The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam. They have very different views on the topic.

Now I have come across an editorial that looks at their arguments and responds with his own conclusion - this from The Ottawa Citizen.
Several years ago, two academic heavy-hitters, Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield and Radcliffe historian Nancy Cott, debated the topic of manliness and masculinity in an exchange sponsored by the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Mansfield recounted how an editor from Harvard Magazine once asked if he could offer a pithy comment on a fellow faculty member. Mansfield responded that what most impressed him was his colleague’s manliness. “There was a pause,” Mansfield told the audience. “Then the editor said, ‘Can you think of another word?’”

Mansfield’s point was that notions of manliness such as self-confidence, independence and the capacity to exercise authority had become risible in our effeminized, gender-neutral society — until Sept. 11, 2001. On that date, hundreds of men in uniforms died trying to save thousands of others when terrorists struck in the United States. Indeed, in the aftermath, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan was prompted to declare: “Men are back ... We are experiencing a new respect for their old-fashioned masculinity, a new respect for physical courage, for strength and the willingness to use both for the good of others.”

Well, Harvey Mansfield is back, too. In the Spring issue of incharacter magazine, Harvard University political theorist has weighed in again on the manliness topic in an exchange with Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the former member of the Dutch parliament who forced into hiding when she offended some Muslims by collaborating with slain filmmaker Theo van Gogh on the film Submission. The two swap views on the question “Is Courage a Masculine Virtue?”

Mansfield is careful to acknowledge, “courage is not solely for men.” But he insists, “it is mainly for men.” Here’s an excerpt:

“Giving women equal opportunity for displaying courage does no obvious harm if the need for courage remains clear. It would not be good to measure the amount of courage we need from the willingness of women to produce half of it. Less obvious harm might result from the loss of tenderness, and the loss of esteem for tenderness, in women. Do we really want two tough, aggressive sexes instead of one tough, the other tender? And do we want to dispense with gallantry in men, which is related to protectiveness in husbands?”

For her part, Ali, the author of Infidel and The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam, points out how she was taught that only men possess courage. Unfortunately, as she shows, notions of masculinity and courage seem to have been perverted in some Islamic societies.

“It was at the age of twenty-one that I became disillusioned with the promise of protection from my men folk. On the border between Kenya and Somalia, just after the civil war began, I saw men with no sense of direction, discipline, or energy to fight. The women walked, gathered food, found water, and told stories of hope and better times to come. They found ways to reach family members dispersed across the world and appeal to them for help. There were definitely some brave men who delivered on their promise of protection. But the greatest shock came to me when I saw victims of rape (assaulted by the Kenyan border police) who were left in a vulnerable position, unguarded by the men of their clan. And after these women were raped, no male member was brave enough to confront the Kenyan police. They were left alone to die. Their agony, and perhaps eventual death, was justified as a way of washing the shame off the clan (their male relatives).”

After reading Ali’s account, I remembered Mansfield’s debate with Nancy Cott back in 2003, and how Cott insisted “there must be a better term than manly. Nobility, character, courage and integrity are wonderful principles for human behaviour. Why not dispense with trying to save the word and hold up these other terms as ideals?”

Mansfield responded by pointing out that abstract ideals are vindicated only in concrete actions, and historically it has largely been men who, acting out of sense of manhood, have risked their lives to embody those ideals. Unfortunately, Ali could rightly point out that not all men — or all cultures — live up to their ideals.


Justice Marshall said...

Because not all men- or all cultures - live up to their ideals, should we scrap the notion of masc/fem synergy? My take? Just the opposite!

Amanda said...

I'm still struggling with the complete disregard of spiritual, emotional, and moral plane in looking at the word courage. Were they consciously intending to leave all of these connotations out of the discussion from the start? If you limit the definition of the word you are using to include only physical courage, then it is easy to draw a conclusion that courage belongs primarily to the physically stronger gender, because all other views have already been excluded.

WH said...

Thanks for the comments!

I see both Mansfield and Ali as partial truths. Mansfield is coming from a Blue meme (mythic/authoritarian) worldview, with courage as an almost distinctly (God-given) male trait. Ali is coming from an Orange meme (self-interest/rational) worldview, where courage is more situation and open to everyone.

Both are true and partial - a higher definition might see courage as the ability to act with compassion in the face of deadly force (or something along those lines). Or to sacrifice self-interest in the service of others (courage as a form of altruism).

In posting the original article and this follow-up, I am mostly interested in the play of worldviews (the two most common in the US today).