Once you think about it for a minute, it’s very obvious, but I’ve wanted to make this point for a while: counter-cultural bravery is a relative phenomenon.
Take the obvious example of someone uttering the phrase, “gay sex is a sin before the Lord.” Now, let’s all admit that uttering that statement as a professor while standing in the middle of campus at NYU probably takes some guts. But standing up in the middle of class and saying the same at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary? Not so much. Similarly, it is not very bold to declare, “God accepts LGBT folks and affirms them just as they are” at NYU, but it is bold in the house of Mohler.
Even with this simple example, though, it’s more complicated. Much of one’s ability to do or say ‘controversial’ things has to do with our understanding of their social cost to us in our various, overlapping communities. So if you’re an street-preacher who assumes that getting hate on campus is a sign you’re doing it right, and will be commended in your own street-preacher community, then you’re not worried about that cost. Similarly, if you’re an LGBT activist looking for the approval of or status among your activist friends, and not a Baptist, you’re not really that concerned about getting banned from Southern’s campus. Especially if you can get it on video that will go viral on Twitter.
Indeed, in our current attention-economy, the cost can be the pay-off. This is why we live in a world that tempts us to become trigger-artists and professional martyrs. In Homeric culture, warriors may run great risks, but they stand to reap glory and riches. The same holds for culture warriors in our less-than-Homeric times.
Which is to say a few things.
First, regardless of the truth or the goodness of an opinion, you can find some place where stating it renders you either a safe member of the herd, or a brave, speaker of truths. Courage, then, isn’t just to be determined by the amount of “boldness” something takes, but also with respect to its end. Two folks may demonstrate the same amount of boldness, but one is actually aiming at a true good, while other could be mistakenly aiming at something false, or simply selfishly doing so. And this is just Aristotle.
Second, it’s almost always possible to point to the cost for some position you’re going to take. The conservative writer or seminary prof who can point to all the secular spaces that he won’t get invited to as a result of the sentence he’s about to bravely utter before his own audience. The progressive speaker who will lose some of their conservative audience and speaking opportunities, even as they pick up new audiences and readers precisely by taking the position they are about to take.
I’m not saying that there aren’t actually costs for some folks–people do lose friends, jobs, and general social standing. That said, I am just saying there are times we should cast a more skeptical eye at people whose professional standing depends on twitter-threads going viral, or who stand to gain every time they can quote-tweet someone saying something terrible to them in response as proof of their heroic burden. AND, weirdly enough, there are times we need to slow down in our tendency to write off every social cost real because, hey, that person went viral.
That may sound contradictory, but I don’t think it is if you begin to apply those principles against the grain of our general tendency to write off the social cost to our opponents and empathize with our allies. We take costs that we’re more likely to suffer more seriously than those that threaten our opponents, and we similarly minimize the benefits we stand to gain. I’m just saying we should maybe flip that a little more.