Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Bold and the Bravado

There's a little boy in the hospital, at time of writing. He's there because he was thrown 10-metres from a spinning ride at a school fete and hit his head, he's in a coma. I'd like to imagine he was having a fun time before he hit his head, and was having the time of his life flying through the air, but otherwise this is a very serious situation. The doctors are wary to release too much information at this critical point, but the boy is fighting for his life. Many people have commented that this victim is a very brave little boy fighting for his life.
Uh, NO, he's not. The Word of the Day is: 'BRAVE'.

Brave /brayv/ adj. 1. Possessing or showing courage. 2. Making a fine appearance: A brave new world. ♦n. 3. A North American Indian or other fierce warrior. ♦v.t. 4. To meet or face courageously: to brave misfortunes. 5. To dare; defy: To brave the storm. ♦v. 6. Brave it out, to ignore or resist all opposition.

I heard a story of someone who fell into a river, but was unable to swim (I believe they hit their head) when a man passing by saw this poor sod, he jumped into the river and saved them - this  was not brave; Angelina Jolie recently had both of her breasts removed due to potential cancer risk, and told the world her story - she was not brave; I have heard multiple stories of children who have called the police when their parents are incapacitated and there is a burglar in the house - these children are not brave.
A while ago, I did a post called Deepest, Darkest Cigarette about Chrissie Swan telling the world the truth about smoking during pregnancy - she was not brave then and is not now. You know, I think a lot of my opinion here has come from that post, so I recommend you read it first, but even if you don't, allow me to explain.
I am not saying that I don't like these people. These are good people. Some, if not all, of these people can go under the title of 'saviour', 'icon' or 'saint', and can be described as 'valiant', 'just' and 'beneficent'. There are many kind words to describe these people, but not brave. Not to me anyway, or anyone who respects language, or even culture.

Let's start with the lexicographical side of things because that is (disputably) less important [feel skip to ahead to the next paragraph if you're not in the mood to be educated, or some other kind of moron]. See, the word 'Brave' comes from the Italian word bravo, meaning good, capable, obedient, skilled or clever. But that word comes from a fusion of the two Latin words prāvus, which means 'crooked, deformed, depraved, perverse or wicked' and barbarus, which means 'foreign, savage or uncivilized'.
A wicked, deformed and uncivilized savage may not seem very brave, but it's cultural meaning, at the time, is understandable. It is referring to a soldier or warrior. A creature of war, a brave soldier must have no fear.
Moving this word into the modern century, to be brave is to be fearless, but we've come to understand that courage is more than just fearlessness. It's about overcoming fear and it's also about being a soldier and a warrior. It's about being bold. We can't ignore that history. To me, none of the people I mentioned above are being 'bold'.
Sure, they are showing fearlessness, but fear isn't always expected in these situations. But more than that, so often these people have no choice.

This is the big issue. This is what pisses me off about using the word 'brave' in these situations. I've heard at least three separate stories of young children calling the police and being called 'brave'. Often they lock themselves in a room and use their parents' mobile phones to call the cops and tell them they are in trouble. Congratulations child, you've done What was Expected of you.
These kids aren't brave, they're just competent. If these kids are brave, what do we call the kids that DON'T call the cops when they're in trouble? Normal?

What about the guy who saved someone from drowning? In some places, there is no legal obligation to save someone that is drowning, and if you're taught well at school you'll know that diving in after a drowning person is frowned upon unless they are unconscious (you'll more likely drown yourself). But I prefer to think that helping someone in trouble is normal. If you see a person in mortal danger, you should do what you can to help them, even if all you can do is call an ambulance. If this guy is brave, what do we call the people that keep on walking? Average citizens?

Someone who just walks away from someone in need isn't 'normal' in my eyes, they're a heartless monster. Or just incompetent.

Angelina Jolie had a preventative double mastectomy. That's a pretty serious piece of surgery right there, and was a big decision, but she's not brave in my eyes because she kinda had to. She has a high risk of cancer! If you have risk of breast cancer, then it's still your decision to roll the dice with the potential of being cancer-free. There's nothing wrong in that decision, it's your body. But doctors recommend having a mastectomy, so that your risk goes down.
What she did was medically appropriate! I agree that what she's done is good for women out there who are unsure of the procedure, and she'll help those women feel good about themselves. But for that she can be called an 'icon' or a 'poster girl' or maybe even some womens' 'saviour'. But she isn't much braver than someone getting a flu shot, and telling others to as well.
She did the right thing.

  "So what is brave in your eyes, Absurd Word Nerd?" I hear you ask condescendingly. "Are you claiming bravery is some unattainable goal, or can we mere mortals achieve bravery in your eyes?"

Yeah, of course it's attainable. Bravery isn't impossible, but I want it to regain it's standard as something we should strive towards, something above and beyond the call of duty as opposed to the above examples where people are 'brave' for doing things that would be more trouble if they didn't do them.
So for you that wish to be brave, I have compiled a list of four criteria for acts of bravery, so you can judge your actions for yourself.
To be considered Brave, your action must have at least three out of four of these criteria:

1. Difficult
If something is easy, then we could all do it. This doesn't have to be physical difficulty, this can be mental, social or even political difficulty. Something as simple as "coming out of the closet" can become very difficult, if you're in a hetero-centric environment or unsure how people will treat you afterward. Bravery is overcoming Difficulty.

2. Scary
Fearlessness is a key feature of bravery, but I'm fearless almost every day! So the situation must be one that could considered scary. But to be fair, I mean scary subjectively. Fear is personal, so while I don't have a problem with heights, the act of climbing a tree would be very brave for those with acrophobia. At least, it could be, so long as your tree-climb also covers at least two more of these criteria. Bravery is overcoming Fear.

3. Selfless
This is, essentially, to cull out the weasels. There are people who do scary, crazy things to get attention. Unless you want to call every skydiver 'brave' for jumping out of a perfectly good aeroplane, acts of bravery need to help other people. But also, if you're doing something to promote your own ends, or benefitting yourself in the long-run, you're not being brave. Sure, you may be helping people, but bravery is about 'going above and beyond'. Making life better for yourself is not brave. Bravery is overcoming Selfishness.

4. Avoidable
Okay, this is a big one, this is about 'going beyond'. If you get hurt or sick or in trouble, you want to get out of it, heal or overcome the situation. But that's just natural. It's not so much being brave, as coming to terms with reality. In turn, not going with the flow is often cowardice or laziness on a severe degree. So if you have no choice, then I don't see how what you're doing is brave.  There is nothing bold about accepting the truth, that's just going with the flow. That's what it means to be an average citizen. That's just life. Living an average life isn't brave. Bravery is overcoming Mediocrity.

I didn't just pluck these criteria out of thin air. I worked backwards from the many definitions (and etymologies) of the word 'brave', and I defined bravery as best I could. I'm trying to define bravery so that it's not only attainable, but has a deeper meaning.
If we use the word as people are currently, then we are watering it down, and diluting it so far, it's become synonymous with the word 'helpful'. But I want the word to retain it's might, because there are people that I consider brave.

When we call people heroes, I don't want the greats to have to stand next to children who can operate a telephone and imply they're on the same strata.

I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and I am not being brave by writing this post.


  1. Wow, these criteria are both controversial and valid, because when we call someone brave, we commend them for doing an action in the midst of danger. But now that you mention it, we expect kids to call the police and to have surgery when they have cancer.
    In your opinion, what are the best fictional examples of courage?

    1. There's a lot of characters out there, but since you're own blog has a tendency to concentrate on Disney films . . . I figured I should as well. So, just for you:

      The A.W.N.'s Top 10 Bravest Disney Characters
      [SPOILER WARNING: Most of the bravest acts in movies are the “Third Act”, so a blanket spoiler warning is in effect.]

      10. Mulan [Mulan]
      Scraping in on a technicality, fighting a genocidal hun warrior on a rooftop is damn scary.

      09. Remy [Ratatouille]
      Going against a lifetime of "humans hate & kill rats" AND trying to live his ridiculous dream of being a 5 star chef? That takes guts, but this is an idealistic difficulty, so Remy gets low-balled.

      08. Bolt [Bolt]
      The character is built on 'dumb luck'. But even after he realizes he's just a normal dog, he stays in the middle of a burning building just so he can stand by his master's side.

      07. Travis Coates [Old Yeller]
      He had to shoot his BEST FRIEND! He is only so low on the list because he wasn't in danger, but I couldn't ignore that heartbreak.

      06. Aladdin [Aladdin]
      Having lost his genie, and facing the most powerful sorcerer in the world, what does Aladdin do? He takes a gamble. With only one chance, he tries to see if he can trick the villain into his own entrapment. and somehow he manages to succeed! Although, I'm not sure how 'scared' he was, so despite facing basically a GOD, I think he wasn't the bravest cookie in this jar.

      05. Tod the Fox [Fox and the Hound]
      This time saving a best friend, Tod confronts a bear for his friend. But the thing is, at this point Copper and Slade both hate him. He would get nothing in return, he just didn't want Copper to get hurt, so he faces a freaking bear!

      04. Basil of Baker Street [The Great Mouse Detective]
      Basil is a mouse, and he faces Ratigan, a criminal mastermind with a CAT at his beck and call. But Basil is continuously fighting him for justice! Then when Ratigan goes full-on crazy and fights in a fierce frenzy of claws and muscle, Basil is battered and scratched, but still fights. What a trooper. Although he does falter a bit, which stops him from being number one on this list.

      03. (Princess?) Giselle [Enchanted]
      She fights a dragon with a sword. Sure it's played for laughs, but when you see the way the Narissa dragon plays with her, it's obvious that Giselle is out of her weight class. But she fights anyway to save the man she loves. That could be a little selfless. But having seen how incompetent and ditzy Giselle is in general, makes me feel like it took a lot of gumption to get her on that rain-soaked rooftop.

      02. Wreck-It Ralph [Wreck-It Ralph]
      All he has to do is walk away. The problem is solved, most of the people are saved. But when Ralph realizes Vanellope is in trouble, he risks his life to save a game that's not his. And for what? One person. One person that he finds ANNOYING. It just goes to show that, although he's a bad guy, he's not a bad . . . guy.

      01. Prince Eric [The Little Mermaid]
      This may seem like a weird choice, but think about it. An evil sea-witch already has super awesome powers. She then steals Triton's crown and becomes the Queen of the Sea and has power over all of it. THEN she grows over 40 storeys tall, and creates a horrific monsoon. Most people would cower and cry. But what does Prince Eric do. He commandeers a BROKEN Ship and drives it straight at her stomach. This was Avoidable. This was freaking Scary. This was Selfless (he may have been 'doing it for love', but he was risking his life!). And this was damned Difficult.
      Congratulations Prince Eric. You are the bravest Disney character I know. Oh, and he gets the girl too!

      Until next time, I'm the Absurd Word Nerd saying:
      "Don't ask me a question unless you're prepared to hear the answer!"

    2. Oh, I love this answer, and not just because Eric won. Another Disney contender I'd say would be Flynn/Eugene from Tangled by giving his life for Rapunzel's freedom at the end. Avoidable, scary for Flynn, and Selfless. But I'm happy to see that Tod and Basil are included.


Feel free to make suggestions, ask questions & comment . . .
I would love to read your words.