In our School we talk about courage a lot. We can’t help it to some extent given the fact that the majority of us are men, and as men, we are constantly reminded of what courage means in the Australian context. Right now, and for men in particular, it seems to me that the dominant narrative on manly courage has been constructed predominantly through the sporting lens. And that’s understandable. We grow up with sport. Everyone plays it, watches it and understands it. For many of us, our whole weekends are based and organised around the playing of sport.
When we watch sport, acts of courage are easily identifiable; out on the oval, the pitch, the court, or the river, there is no place to hide. Our actions are on show for everyone to see. If you’re anything like me, you are thrilled and moved by acts of great courage. I like cycling and I’ll never forget watching Cadel Evans chase down Andy Schleck in the final climb of the penultimate stage of the Tour de France the year he won. He was in obvious pain and close to exhaustion, but he was pushing a massive gear as he literally ate up Schleck’s lead in the final kilometre. He didn’t beat Scheleck on that day, but his act of courage to push himself to his physical limit was beautiful to watch and ultimately meant he would be the first Australian to win the Tour de France.
For many of us, courage exhibited in sport is not only easy to identify and accept, but it is also easy to acknowledge and celebrate. It is harder for some of us to identify the courage required to perform. When performing, you are totally exposed whenever you get up on stage in front of an audience. You also know full well that to perform the best that you can, you have to ‘put it all out there’. I’m in awe of those students who get up in front of their peers to sing, dance, act or play a musical instrument. While not quite there yet, given a bit of time, we as a community are going to be just as comfortable at acknowledging and celebrating these acts of courage, in the same way as when we talk about sport.
There’s a third type of courage that I want to write about, and, in my view, this is the most important type of courage of all. Vice Captain of School, Seb Cardone, talked about this eloquently in his speech at Muster this week when he asked the students to find their own truth by which to live their lives. The reality is that sometimes that’s a really hard thing to do, because our own truth, or perhaps we could call it our conscience, doesn’t always align with what our friends or peers are saying or doing. Standing up for our own truths can be really, really hard sometimes.
I love great literature because it can reveal, uncover, or shine a light on the great hidden truths of life in an eloquent and succinct way. To Kill a Mocking Bird by Harper Lee has much to say about the kind of courage Seb was alluding to when he spoke of truth. For those of you who don’t know the story, the novel is set in 1920s America where African American rights were virtually non-existent. In the story, a white lawyer, Atticus Finch, defends an African American man, Tom Robinson, who is wrongly accused of abusing a white woman. He is hated by the white people of his town as a result. For them it was inconceivable that a white man would defend an African American in this way.
Atticus’s daughter Scout, can’t understand why her father is so despised, despite the fact that everyone knows that Tom is innocent. She also can’t understand why her father continues to treat everyone, even those that openly display their hatred for him, with respect. Atticus tries to explain to Scout and says, “They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”
The point Atticus is making here is that while it would be far easier for him to walk away from defending Tom, his conscience, or his truth if you like, simply will not let him. That’s why for me, this is the hardest kind of courage to exhibit. Atticus’s daughter Scout also recognises this when she writes about the event years later and reflects that “It was times like these when I thought my father, who hated guns and had never been to any wars, was the bravest man who ever lived.”
So, the question to ask is what does this kind of courage look like for us in this community of St Peter’s College? When do we as individuals need to stand up for what we know to be right? This is particularly relevant to the way we, as an influential all-male school, talk to and about women. Events of the last week, including the rape and murder of Eurydice Dixon, a young female comedian, in Melbourne have again forced us to reflect upon the awful consequences that a narrative of disrespect and objectification can have. I don’t for one second subscribe to the idea that men are inherently violent but I do think we need to change the narrative around what it means to be a man. I believe the vast majority of men want to be able to show people that they are gentle, loving and kind. As individuals in this community we have a huge responsibility to call it out when our friends cross the line on this. Listen to your conscience carefully and I know you’ll always make the right call.
The last situation I want you to think about is when you know someone has done something wrong and as a result potentially put themselves or someone else in a dangerous or compromised situation. Again, I ask that you listen carefully to your conscience on this. If we are to improve as a community it is paramount that you feel comfortable to inform either another friend, a teacher or a parent when you know that someone has crossed the line on bullying for example. The question I ask is, who is more courageous? The person who bullies a vulnerable person, or the person who calls it out?
We are a good community. I just want us to be even better.
Pro Deo et Patria.
Deputy Headmaster/Head of Senior School