Let’s start with the definition. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines bravery as “the quality that allows someone to do things that are dangerous or frightening : the quality or state of being brave”.
That’s simple enough. Actions that are dangerous or frightening require bravery; going to war, defending one’s family, rescuing octogenarians from house fires, and so on. What’s the first result on Google, as of the writing of this article, for news articles featuring the word “brave”?
A soldier dying to defend his country?
A man defending his home against armed intruders?
A fireman heroically rescuing a little old lady (and all of her many cats) from a house fire?
“Selena Gomez Posts ‘Brave’ Bikini Selfie! But Is She Trying Too Hard To Be Sexy?”
How unsurprisingly disappointing.
Now, technically, if Selena Gomez happens to be utterly terrified of posting selfies, then her action could arguably be considered brave under the above definition. Even if technically accurate, however, anyone with half a mind should immediately be able to see the utter ludicrousness of labeling a selfie “brave”. The headline is a perfect example of the gratingly excessive overuse of the word “brave” in our present culture.
I believe that the liberal use of such words, brave, heroic, courageous, etc., is the inevitable result of the watering down of language to the point where its meaning has become entirely relative. What have traditionally been considered virtues have been entirely eliminated from public discourse and are now relegated to “qualities”.
Look at the definition again. Bravery is described as a quality, not a virtue, and this holds true of both formal definitions and the general use of the term today. This is an important distinction, because while a quality is merely an amoral characteristic, a virtue is a characteristic that is morally good. Qualities can be anything, but virtues are restrictive.
If bravery is nothing more than a quality, then posting a selfie, wearing garish clothing, or nattering on about various personal issues that should really be kept to oneself, can all be labeled “brave”, so long as they meet the criteria of “dangerous or frightening”. As what one finds “dangerous or frightening” is entirely relative to the individual, one can be “brave” for absolutely anything.
However, if bravery is instead a virtue, then what is brave is restricted to actions that are morally good. Is posting a selfie morally good? No, at best it is amoral, possessing no moral value whatsoever, and therefore cannot be brave. The perspective of bravery as a virtue, rather than as a quality, would immediately eliminate most, if not all, such liberal uses of the word brave.
This brings us to the question of why have the words traditionally used to describe virtuous actions become watered down?
The answer is simple. The liberal use of words like “brave”, words that used to actually mean something, is a symptom of the lazy, decadent, and superficial culture we have had the great misfortune of being born into.
Everyone wants to be brave, but being brave is hard (mild understatement). We live in a culture of ease, people don’t like “hard”. Look around you, everyone wants the payoff without putting in the effort. They want to get rich quick, lose all their excess weight in two days, and become internationally famous, all without moving from the couch.
Which is easier, risking your life to save others, or increasingly misusing words so that they become redefined, and one can be “brave” without having done anything at all?
This is the situation we find ourselves in. Being labeled “brave” still carries much of the emotional payoff that it always has, but requires next to no effort. It’s like when schools hand out medals for “participation”. Winning becomes meaningless, but at least everyone “feels good about themselves”.
Language matters. The only way to bring meaning back to words like brave, heroic, or courageous, is the same way they became meaningless to begin with, through their use. When you use these words, use them appropriately, and when others misuse them, call them out on their bullshit.
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