Susan Sontag on Moral Courage and the Power of Principled Resistance to Injustice
“Fear binds people together. And fear disperses them. Courage inspires communities: the courage of an example — for courage is as contagious as fear.”
By Maria Popova
The recent anniversary of Rosa Parks’s arrest, which sparked the historic Montgomery Bus Boycott, reminded me of “On Courage and Resistance” — the timeless Oscar Romero Award keynote address Susan Sontag delivered on March 30, 2003, originally published in the 2007 posthumous anthology At the Same Time: Essays and Speeches (public library). In honoring the Israeli soldiers who defied orders and refused to serve in the occupied territories, Sontag examines the osmosis between individual acts and collective fate, the interplay between morality and courage, and the role of fear in violence:
Fear binds people together. And fear disperses them. Courage inspires communities: the courage of an example — for courage is as contagious as fear. But courage, certain kinds of courage, can also isolate the brave.
The perennial destiny of principles: while everyone professes to have them, they are likely to be sacrificed when they become inconveniencing. Generally a moral principle is something that puts one at variance with accepted practice. And that variance has consequences, sometimes unpleasant consequences, as the community takes its revenge on those who challenge its contradictions — who want a society actually to uphold the principles it professes to defend.
The standard that a society should actually embody its own professed principles is a utopian one, in the sense that moral principles contradict the way things really are — and always will be. How things really are — and always will be — is neither all evil nor all good but deficient, inconsistent, inferior. Principles invite us to do something about the morass of contradictions in which we function morally. Principles invite us to clean up our act, to become intolerant of moral laxity and compromise and cowardice and the turning away from what is upsetting: that secret gnawing of the heart that tells us that what we are doing is not right, and so counsels us that we’d be better off just not thinking about it.
The cry of the antiprincipled: ‘I’m doing the best I can.’ The best given the circumstances, of course.
In discussing the relationship between morality and courage, Sontag speaks to the kind of “moral imagination” so essential for happiness:
At the center of our moral life and our moral imagination are the great models of resistance: the great stories of those who have said no. No, I will not serve.
Courage has no moral value in itself, for courage is not, in itself, a moral virtue. Vicious scoundrels, murderers, terrorists may be brave. To describe courage as a virtue, we need an adjective: we speak of ‘moral courage’ — because there is such a thing as amoral courage, too.
She zooms in on the Israel-Palestine conflict and its reverberations around the world:
A wounded and fearful country, Israel, is going through the greatest crisis of its turbulent history, brought about by the policy of steadily increasing and reinforcing settlements on the territories won after its victory in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. The decision of successive Israeli governments to retain control over the West Bank and Gaza, thereby denying their Palestinian neighbors a state of their own, is a catastrophe — moral, human, and political — for both peoples. The Palestinians need a sovereign state. Israel needs a sovereign Palestinian state. Those of us abroad who wish for Israel to survive cannot, should not, wish it to survive no matter what, no matter how. We owe a particular debt of gratitude to courageous Israeli Jewish witnesses, journalists, architects, poets, novelists, professors — among others — who have described and documented and protested and militated against the sufferings of the Palestinians living under the increasingly cruel terms of Israeli military subjugation and settler annexation.
Long before the “peer progressive” movement, Sontag makes an infinitely important point about the incrementally cumulative value of individual acts of resistance:
The Israeli soldiers who are resisting service in the Occupied Territories are not refusing a particular order. They are refusing to enter the space where illegitimate orders are bound to be given… What the refuseniks have done — there are now more than one thousand of them, more than 250 of whom have gone to prison — does not contribute to tell us how the Israelis and Palestinians can make peace beyond the irrevocable demand that the settlements be disbanded. The actions of this heroic minority cannot contribute to the much-needed reform and democratization of the Palestinian Authority. Their stand will not lessen the grip of religious bigotry and racism in Israeli society or reduce the dissemination of virulent anti-Semitic propaganda in the aggrieved Arab world. It will not stop the suicide bombers.
It simply declares: enough. Or: there is a limit. Yesh gvul.
It provides a model of resistance. Of disobedience. For which there will always be penalties.
Sontag then issues a critique all the more apt today, nearly a decade of wars later:
Our ‘United We Stand’ or ‘Winner Takes All’ ethos: the United States is a country that has made patriotism equivalent to consensus.
On the flawed logic of going to — and staying at — war:
The force of arms has its own logic. If you commit an aggression and others resist, it is easy to convince the home front that the fighting must continue. Once the troops are there, they must be supported. It becomes irrelevant to question why the troops are there in the first place.
Sontag zooms back out into the bigger picture:
Let’s not underestimate the force of what we are opposing.
The world is, for almost everyone, that over which we have virtually no control. Common sense and the sense of self-protectiveness tell us to accommodate to what we cannot change.
It’s not hard to see how some of us might be persuaded of the justice, the necessity of a war. Especially of a war that is formulated as small, limited military actions that will actually contribute to peace or improve security; of an aggression that announces itself as a campaign of disarmament — admittedly, disarmament of the enemy; and, regrettably, requiring the application of overpowering force. An invasion that calls itself, officially, a liberation.
Every violence in war has been justified as a retaliation. We are threatened. We are defending ourselves. The others, they want to kill us. We must stop them.
Never mind the disparity of forces, of wealth, of firepower — or simply of population. How many Americans know that the population of Iraq is 24 million, half of whom are children? (The population of the United States, as you will remember, is 290 million.) Not to support those who are coming under fire from the enemy seems like treason.
She illustrates the case for personal responsibility — something Joan Didion pointed to as the pillar of character — with an example of how seemingly ineffectual individual acts of resistance can spark massively influential chain reactions of effects:
Thoreau’s going to prison in 1846 for refusing to pay the poll tax in protest against the American war on Mexico hardly stopped the war. But the resonance of that most unpunishing and briefest spell of imprisonment (famously, a single night in jail) has not ceased to inspire principled resistance to injustice through the second half of the twentieth century and into our new era. The movement in the late 1980s to shut down the Nevada Test Site, a key location for the nuclear arms race, failed in its goal; the operations of the test site were unaffected by the protests. But it led directly to the formation of a movement of protesters in faraway Alma Ata, who eventually succeeded in shutting down the main Soviet test site in Kazakhstan, citing the Nevada antinuclear activists as their inspiration and expressing solidarity with the Native Americans on whose land the Nevada Test Site had been located.
The likelihood that your acts of resistance cannot stop the injustice does not exempt you from acting in what you sincerely and reflectively hold to be the best interests of your community.
Thus: it is not in the best interests of Israel to be an oppressor.
Thus: it is not in the best interests of the United States to be a hyperpower, capable of imposing its will on any country in the world, as it chooses.
Sontag concludes with a necessary reminder that, just like the light and heat of the distant sun are responsible for the flame in your fireplace, our local, individual actions and inextricably connected to and fractionally instrumental in our global, collective fate:
Beyond these struggles, which are worthy of our passionate adherence, it is important to remember that in programs of political resistance the relation of cause and effect is convoluted and often indirect. All struggle, all resistance is — must be — concrete. And all struggle has a global resonance.
If not here, then there. If not now, then soon. Elsewhere as well as here.
At the Same Time is a remarkable anthology in its entirety — highly recommended. Complement with Sontag’s insights on art, love, writing, censorship, boredom, and aphorisms.
Published December 5, 2012