Skip to 0 minutes and 7 seconds I’m going to talk about civic courage, civic courage, the willingness to take risks for persons outside one’s own family and circle of friends or to defend a common value, such as planetary survival. I think for example, of Malala Yousafzai in the Swat Valley in northern Pakistan. It was the winter of 2009 and Taliban extremists were bombing schools for girls in Swat. In London, BBC producers felt that a blog written by a schoolgirl in Swat would have the power of Anne Frank’s diary. They looked around for someone willing to write about what was happening. And only the 11-year-old Malala was ready to do so.
Skip to 1 minute and 6 seconds She gradually felt safer, spoke out with her own name, until one day in 2012, she was going home from school on the bus, when two armed militants stopped the bus, found her. One of them shot her in the head and neck, and she was six months in hospitals before she was OK again. And some of you may remember those days when there was a wave of love and support for Malala all over the world, people holding prayer vigils, raising money for her care, almost a million people recommending her for the Nobel Peace Prize on the web. And she was on the cover of Newsweek, Malala, the bravest girl in the world. Twice on the cover of Time magazine.
Skip to 2 minutes and 2 seconds And it’s interesting how we react to people who are ready to risk their lives for a common ideal. Already in 1902, the psychologist William James pondered these reactions and wrote that, when we meet someone who has risked her life for a stranger, we take her to be our born superior, so great is our respect. And William James felt that we feel this way because such individuals have, in some sense, touched life’s deepest mystery, they have received the answer to the riddle of the Sphinx. And James doesn’t write exactly what that answer is. But I get the feeling that it’s similar to something that a leader of farm workers, Cesar Chavez, spoke about at the start of a fast.
Skip to 3 minutes and 2 seconds He said, I quote, to be human, to be human is to suffer for others. May God help us to be human. Another person who has awoken such strong feelings is Sophie Scholl, who grew up in the same town in Germany as Albert Einstein, who was part of Adolf Hitler’s youth organisation in the ’30s. Started studies at the University of Munich in 1942 in philosophy and biology. She and her brother had a great student life there. But they gradually learned more and more of what their country, Hitler’s Germany, was doing in 1942. And decided that they had to offer resistance. They began making pamphlets against the Nazi regime, that they distributed in great secrecy.
Skip to 4 minutes and 1 second But one day, Sophie and her brother were putting out piles of the sixth pamphlet in the university building. They thought they were alone in the corridors, but a guard saw them, caught them, took them to the rector and to Hitler’s police, the Gestapo. Sophie, 21 years old and Hans, 25 were beheaded. A decade ago, there was an opinion study in Germany, asking Germans between the ages of 18 and 40 who was the greatest German of all times. And the results came, the greatest German of all times was Sophie Scholl and her brother Hans, ahead of Bach, Beethoven, and Albert Einstein.
Skip to 4 minutes and 58 seconds So there we see again the power of civic courage to awaken great love, in this case, the love of these siblings’ future compatriots. And I witnessed that too in my classes, where my students and I have invited in courageous guests who we interview. One of the guests was Amy Goodman. She described how, as a journalist, she witnessed and tried to stop a massacre in East Timor. She was almost killed. And in the classroom, there were a couple dozen students who wanted to talk more with Amy after the interview. And many of them had different forms of the same question, where do I sign up? Can I go with you next time you’re going to do such a reportage?
Skip to 5 minutes and 56 seconds I don’t need to get paid, I just want to learn to become as strong and bold a woman as you are. And at that moment, I understood that courage can be almost as contagious as fear. So courage has this enormous power. It creates moral authority. It makes the people who we respect more than any others, the ones we are ready to join with us in social movements, the Rosa Parks, the Nelson Mandela, the Mahatma Gandhi. And it also attracts imitation, it’s contagious, it brings other people along. And we see that in many different kinds of climate struggles. Someone like Julia Butterfly Hill in northern California, where age old redwoods were about to be cut down by a timber company.
Skip to 7 minutes and 6 seconds And she climbed one of them and stayed in the tree for almost two years, with other activists sending up food and supplies to her, making it impossible for the timber company to get to that part of the forest. And in doing so, she brought in many other people to the movement and won their respect. Or all the people who spent time in prison after acts of civil disobedience all over the world on a whole host of climate issues. Or we can think of people like one of the new professors here at Uppsala University who refuses ever to fly on airplanes, because he realises the extreme damage that that does.
Skip to 8 minutes and 3 seconds That’s difficult for him and his family, it’s a hindrance to his career, but it also wins a very great respect, generates moral authority. People realise that he is someone who is willing to suffer for his vision of what is important. And I think that that’s what we’re left with, that the people we most respect, as Susan Sontag once pointed out, the people we most respect are those who are willing to suffer for their truths, or as the writer Jonathan Kozol once put it, nothing worthwhile in life ever comes for free.
In this video Brian Palmer, social anthropologist and scholar of religion, gives examples of civic courage and highlights its importance in the current times and in relation to climate change.
Civic courage is the willingness to take risks for persons outside one’s own family and circle of friends or to defend a common value such as planetary survival.
He introduces Malala Yousafzai from Northern Pakistan who was writing a blog for the BBC about the situation in the Swat valley before getting shot in the head in 2012 by militants. She survived and became known as ‘the bravest girl in the world’ - and was awarded the Nobel prize as the youngest-ever laureate.
He relates her courage to something Cesar Chevez, a leader of farm workers, once said at the start of a fast
To be human is to suffer for others. May god help us to be human.
He then introduces Sophie Scholl, who was part of Hitler’s youth organisation in the 1930’s, then studied in 1942 in Munich and offered resistance against the nazi regime by producing pamphlets that her, her brother and some friends were distributing in the university. One night they got caught by a guard which ultimately let to her and her brother, 22 and 25 years old respectively, being beheaded. She was recently voted as the greatest German of all times by the German people.
So there we see again the power of civic courage to awaken great love, in this case, the love of these siblings’ future compatriots.
Amy Goodman then, a journalist, came to visit one of Brian Palmer’s classes one day and was interviewed by the students. She tried to stop a massacre in East Timor and almost got killed. Still, many students showed a keen interest in following her on her next journey. Brian says,
And at that moment, I understood that courage can be almost as contagious as fear. So courage has this enormous power. It creates moral authority. It makes the people who we respect more than any others, the ones we are ready to join with us in social movements, the Rosa Parks, the Nelson Mandela, the Mahatma Gandhi. And it also attracts imitation, it’s contagious, it brings other people along. And we see that in many different kinds of climate struggles.
He then also mentions Julia Butterfly Hill, an activist, and a new professor at Uppsala University that doesn’t fly - this is Kevin Anderson, who you have met earlier in this course.
Do you think civic courage is important in regards to climate change leadership? Why? Do you know of any other examples?
© Brian Palmer, CEMUS and Uppsala University