It is impossible to eliminate all risk in life, but we can do things to minimize it. For instance, you can minimize the risk of breathing toxic gas by staying on the surface of the Earth instead of digging beneath it. Staying on the surface does not guarantee good air, but it makes good air likely. Dig very deep, and the chances of the next breath being toxic increase with every foot.
Because risk is inevitable, humans have an automatic risk detector, a sort of Geiger counter that clicks when risk is high. That’s what fear is, really: your brain analyzes data from your senses and your memory and predicts 1.) how likely it is that you will be harmed in the near future and 2.) how severe that harm will be. If the prediction is “moderate harm, 10% chance,” you feel nervous. If it’s “SEVERE HARM CERTAIN,” you feel terrified. Fear is very mechanistic.
When we feel afraid (when we detect risk), our instinct is to leave or avoid the dangerous situation. This instinct is so powerful that our bodies will actually flee from danger automatically if we don’t stop them. This usually serves us well, but, like all instincts, there are times when it works against us. There are times when risk is necessary, when there is a reason why we must go from a safe situation into a dangerous one. It is safe on the surface, but there is gold underground. To get it, you must overcome your fear of descending.
Overcoming fear is hard, so hard that many people can’t do it. When they get scared–when risk seems great–they retreat, no matter how good the reason for pressing on might be. But some people can overcome fear; they knowingly take risks when the reason is good. We call those people “brave.” We call the quality they exhibit “courage.”
Which brings us to Tim Cook and Brendan Eich.
Tim Cook, if you haven’t heard of him, is a guy who wrote an editorial last week about the need to be courageous. “Opposing discrimination takes courage,” he wrote. “With the lives and dignity of so many people at stake, it’s time for all of us to be courageous.”
Cook is also the CEO of Apple, the most profitable company, ever. As you might expect, he is a multi-multi-millionaire. Hugely successful. Super rich. Not only that, but he’s probably the most popular businessman in the world. People love Apple, and, as the highly visible face of Apple, people love Tim Cook.
Brendan Eich, if you haven’t heard of him, is the former CEO of Mozilla. Former because, after an illustrious career that included the development of some of the internet’s most important technologies, he was forced to resign by a storm of external criticism and by pressure from within his company. Overnight, Eich became hated by people who had power, and it cost him his job.
Now, Cook’s statement about courage and discrimination could be true, depending on the context. It certainly could take courage to stand against discrimination. But the context of Cook’s words is very specific: His editorial was written at the height of the controversy over Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The “discrimination” he is talking about is denying the legitimacy of gay marriage. In context, his statement means, specifically, “[Affirming gay marriage] takes courage.”
Does it? Does standing against this particular form of discrimination take courage? If courage is the willingness to take risks for good reasons, then when an act is courageous, we should be able to define what is being risked. In 2015, what does a person risk by affirming gay marriage?
Cook obviously affirms gay marriage. What consequence has he suffered? He remains the popular CEO of the world’s most profitable company. Barack Obama affirms it; he was reelected President of the United States. Angelina Jolie affirms it; her last movie made three quarters of a billion dollars. Macklemore wrote a song affirming it; the song was a hit. Ellen DeGeneres affirms it (with words and deeds); she’s a perennially popular TV personality. Modern Family affirms it; the show’s ratings remain high. The majority of the states now affirm it; there has been no backlash against them.
Is there any American in this century who has lost anything for affirming gay marriage? If so, they haven’t made the news, and the people who have been most visible in their affirmations certainly haven’t lost anything.
Tim Cook hasn’t lost anything because of his stance on gay marriage, but Brendan Eich has. That was the reason why Eich was suddenly hated and had to resign: he opposed gay marriage. Barronelle Stutzman opposed gay marriage; she was sued and fined. Chic-fil-A opposed gay marriage; there was a boycott, and civic officials declared that the restaurants were not welcome in their cities. The State of Indiana was perceived as opposing gay marriage; it was boycotted by other states. In fact, if you are on the record opposing gay marriage, it’s safe to assume that there are people actively trying to hurt you.
So, which is the riskier thing to do: Affirm gay marriage, or oppose it? Without making any judgement as to which position is right, which one is brave?
The answer is self-evident: In 2015, it is quite safe to affirm gay marriage. It’s the stance of the richest, the most famous, the most powerful. It’s the stance a court will probably support. It’s the popular stance, the polite one. There really isn’t any risk in it, and where there is no risk, no courage is needed. But if you oppose gay marriage? Better watch your back: You might find yourself at the wrong end of a “purge the bigots” campaign. That’s a risk that takes courage to face.
We should all do what we believe is right. Sometimes that will mean taking a path that is dangerous and hard. Sometimes it will mean taking a path that is safe and easy. There is no shame in taking the easy path if it also happens to be the right one–actions are not more right because they are hard or less right because they are easy–but there is shame in lying to make ourselves seem brave when we are not. We should not boast of our courage when what we are doing is, in fact, the least risky option.