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Can Courage Make Change When Cost Is So Great?

Through the history of world art and literature, portrayals of courage abound. Whether a cave painting of a lone spear against the horde of beasts, a classical battle scene, or a modern memorial to the fallen, such a piece is more likely to appeal to pathos and ethos than to logos. Kairos could be seen in the wartime placards, newsreels, and newspaper stories depicting individual acts of courage, a necessary propaganda tool. Most striking, of course, are those images that depict a lone protester, alone sacrifice, as the unarmed and unnamed Man from Tiananmen Square against a line of tanks. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. in “Harrison Bergeron,” published in 1961, and Martin Luther King Jr. in his ” Letter from a Birmingham Jail” (1963), address the issues of individual and collective courage in violent and nonviolent displays. This paper explores the value of one’s sacrifice for the common good, as it is courageous to stand up and fight even when the societal changes are so slow.

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When taking first steps against evil, one sets a reaction in motion, a chain of events that inevitably involve and affect other people, those unwilling to sacrifice their well-being. Perhaps it is why, in comic strips, a hero often is a lone vigilante, misunderstood and rejected. Alternatively, they might be a tragic hero, a protagonist bereft of loved ones as the story starts. Later on, they are helped from above, and, overcoming a multitude of trials, persist, and triumph.

In real life, however, there is no divine help, a person dies but once, unlike the mythic Prometheus. Heroes of the Arab Spring, young people, have risked their futures for the future of their nations, as now do the Yazidi and Kurdish fighters against ISIS. It can be argued that such courage is not an instinctive action, but a conscious one, supported by principles and morals. They do not fight for glory, but rebel for change and freedom from oppression.

Writing about a different rebellion, in “Harrison Bergeron,” Vonnegut depicts the courage of the protagonist in displaying his individuality in a society where equality triumphed, upheld by the repressive government and the “unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General” (par. 1). Harrison’s brave actions threaten the fundamental principles of this society, therefore he is killed, while the status quo remains unchanged, but for his mother’s tears. Vonnegut’s message is that society can not function without letting citizens contribute their unique, individual gifts.

King’s arguments towards standing up for the societal change are that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny”(par. 4). The Civil Rights Movement was a display of unity and courage by the oppressed, who have dared to demand equality. Despite the white supremacists’ actions and the police brutality aimed at the protesters, they have challenged and changed the system through nonviolent resistance, underscoring the importance of negotiation. Many, King himself among them, have lost their lives, but the fight for equality was ultimately won.

Individual courage, as well as collective actions, have been changing the world from times immemorial. Whether national heroes or anonymous individuals rising to the challenge, history’s verdict is that individual displays of courage move and mobilize others. It is up to others, then, to stand up and fight, brothers and sisters in arms or spirit. However, will the change be beneficial to society, or happen at all, only time can tell.

Works Cited

King, Martin Luther Jr. “Letter from a Birmingham Jail [King, Jr.].” African Studies Center – University of Pennsylvania, Web.

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Vonnegut, Kurt Jr. “Harrison Bergeron.” Department of Philosophy – University of Oregon, Web.

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