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Can Courage be Learnt?

The author Malcolm Gladwell wrote the popular book Outliers: The Story of Success.  ‘Outliers’ is term he gives to incredibly successful people, but I’ve used the same word to describe that particular sub-genus of political activist, who persists in challenging authority when others are intimidated into silence.  These people are often sued, imprisoned, attacked and even murdered because of what they write. It is my great privilege to work with and on behalf of such people at English PEN.  They are compelling because they are so unusual in their societies (a fact that makes them even more vulnerable as people in power seek to make a public example of them). What makes such a person?
Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast series Revisionist History has only recently been launched but it’s already in the Top 10 downloads on iTunes. Episode 03 ‘The Big Man Can’t Shoot‘ revisits the idea of what makes some people take different decisions to others, told through the fascinating story of two basketball players.  It gives some insight into what makes both types of ‘outlier’—the successful sportsman; and the tenacious political activist.
The episode asks why barely any professional basketball players shoot free throws underhand. It’s a technique that is proven to yield more points for a player… but it’s also deemed ‘cissy’ or a ‘grandma shot’.  Social pressures prevent basketball players from making a simple change to improve their game!
The reason for this bad choice is not ignorance.  Basketball player Wilt Chamberlin said he knew he was better shooting underarm than over, but he chose the inferior technique anyway.
Gladwell explains that we all have a psychological threshold that must be met before we change our behaviour.  Towards the end of the episode he describes what’s going on in our heads when we make these kinds of choices:

He doesn’t care! The kind of person who would let bad things be said about him in his own autobiography is the kind of person who would shoot a free throw that other people think looks ridiculous. … Someone who puts the responsibility of mastering the task at hand ahead of all social considerations. Who would rather be right than liked.

It takes courage to be good. Social courage. To be honest with yourself, to do things the right way.

To my mind, the idea that someone like Lydia Cacho or Liu Xiaobo or Mazen Darwish has ‘courage’ is true, but also slightly trite, because it only describes what they have done, not why or indeed how. Courage is difficult behaviour to discuss because it is unclear whether it can be learnt or whether it is innate.
Malcolm Gladwell’s contributions here offer arguments for both.  First, his discussions of a low psychological ‘threshold’ that can inspires radical behaviour (or a high threshold that can discourage it) implies that something innate. It’s just a part of our personality that we acquire at an early age. However, as he describes elsewhere in Outliers, a great deal of talent can actually be acquired through practice (specifically, focused practice).
Perhaps courage, as displayed by the political activists and writers I work with, can be similarly taught!? I wonder what this looks like in practice?


Photo: Syrian journalist and activist Mazen Darwish (right), recipient of the 2014 PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage.  Darwish spent 4 years detained without trial in Syria. © Robert Sharp

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Diary

Literary Campaigning at its Best

During my time working for English PEN I’ve often used the phrase ‘literary campaigning’ to describe our particular style of activism.  Its a term that probably seems self evident: we use literature to draw attention to the situation of writers at risk.  For example, we might read the writing of an imprisoned poet outside an embassy, or stage a world-wide reading at multiple locations around the world.
Its an approach that has value for several reasons.  Not only is it non-violent, but it is also not particularly hostile or antagonistic to those who have imprisoned the writer or who are responsible for their persecution.  So it has a diplomatic quality.
It also a fantastic act of solidarity for the embattled writer.  Where they have been entirely censored through imprisonment (or even death) it is a way to give them a voice and restore to them some sort of expression.

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Freedom to Boycott (Part I)

Yesterday evening I left a comment1 on a post by Chris Jarvis on the Bright Green blog.  Discussing Peter Tatchell and No Platform, Chris wrote:

Tatchell tacitly endorses the idea that people should not be able to collectively decide the people that they chose to invite to speak at events that they are organising in their own spaces.

No, I replied.  In signing the letter, Tatchell is saying that when people chose not to debate people with whom they are disagree, they are making a mistake and harming their own cause.

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No Platform: Political Fly-Tipping

The debate about students and free speech has flared up again.  NUS LGBTQ officer Fran Cowling refused to share a platform with veteran human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, acusing him of racism and transphobia.
Many people have pointed out that refusing to speak alongside someone is not the same as denying them a platform; others argue that it can amount to the same thing.
The standard argument against No Platform is that we should debate people we disagree with, because we will win the argument.  This is a point I have made in many contexts.  But there is a collary to this which is often glossed over:  No Platform just makes the bigots someone else’s problem.
No Platform is just a clever form of NIMBYism.  When students refuse to engage, the people with unsavoury views are not discredited to the extent that they fall out of the discourse.  Instead, they double-down.  Although they may be prevented from speaking in a particular place, they usually take their speech elsewhere.

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Photography Imbued with Sadness

A while ago I posted on The Darker Side of Selfies, and the way in which the mainstream media illustrate the news of tragic young deaths with images from the victims’ social media accounts.

Whether it is a car accident, a drug overdose, a gang murder, or a bullying related suicide, the photo editors turn to the victim’s Facebook page or Twitter stream to harvest images. … Used in this new, unintended context, these images strike a discordant note.  The carefree narcissism inherent in any selfie jars with the fact of the artist/subject’s untimely death.

The death of Terrie Lynch and Alexandra Binns this week is a good example.