Courage and public policy: 21st century challenges

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

David R. Boyd, University of Victoria
Guest contributor This entry is part of the Equity Issues Portfolio’s series featuring Trudeau Fellows and Trudeau Scholars. The following is an excerpt from a panel presentation delivered at the Trudeau Foundation’s 2011 Summer Institute in Whistler, British Columbia.

What do we mean by courage in the context of public policy or politics? Not physical courage, which we see from athletes, firemen, and soldiers, people like Terry Fox, Silken Laumann, or Rick Hansen. Instead, we are speaking of moral courage. President John F. Kennedy, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Profiles in Courage, quoted Ernest Hemingway’s maxim that courage is “grace under pressure.” John Wayne said that “courage is being scared to death, and saddling up anyway.” But the most useful definition of courage in the context of public policy comes from Irshad Manji, author of The Trouble with Islam and leader of New York University’s Moral Courage Project. Manji defines moral courage as “the willingness to speak truth to power and risk backlash in pursuit of greater common good.”

For further clarity, Rushworth Kidder, author of Moral Courage, insists that actions only demonstrate moral courage if they are consistent with five key values: honesty, respect, responsibility, fairness, and compassion. Thus exercising moral courage means doing what is right, rather than what is expedient. It means telling people the truth, instead of what the polls suggest they want to hear. It requires acting upon your values, not merely reciting them.

It is relatively easy to think of individuals who epitomize moral courage: Wangari Maathai (Kenya), Nelson Mandela (South Africa), Aung San Suu Kyi (Myanmar), Mahatma Gandhi (India), Dalai Lama (Tibet), Lech Walesa (Poland), Vaclav Havel (Czech Republic), John F. Kennedy (United States), Martin Luther King (United States), and Robert F. Kennedy (United States).

In the Canadian context, one thinks of Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, who led the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Rwanda; Tom Berger, who lost his judicial appointment because of his outspoken advocacy for including Aboriginal rights in Canada’s constitution in 1982; and Pierre Elliot Trudeau, who championed a vision of a just society. Trudeau also was an early voice for sustainability, stating in his 1970 Throne Speech that by exercising foresight, Canada could become “a society in which the enjoyment of life is measured in qualitative, not quantitative terms.”

However, it is potentially misleading to focus on great leaders, because doing so overlooks the fact that many people demonstrate moral courage on a daily basis. As Robert F. Kennedy stated in 1966 while on a speaking tour of South Africa in which he boldly criticized apartheid:

“Few will have the greatness to bend history; but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation ... It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is thus shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”

In my work as an environmental lawyer, I meet many people whom I would describe as ordinary superstars – individuals who routinely display social courage in the course of their everyday lives. For example, I’m part of a global group of public interest environmental lawyers called the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW) who share legal and scientific information in an effort to protect human and ecological health. Many of my colleagues in ELAW live in a completely different reality. These lawyers and their clients face regular attacks ranging from libel and slander to death threats and murder. Some people will have heard about the deaths of Chico Mendes (Brazil); Ken Saro-Wiwa (Nigeria); and Jeanette Kawas (Honduras). These prominent environmental activists were killed by those seeking to silence them.

Many others have been killed, with far less public outcry. In 2009, three Salvadorean activists opposed to a Canadian company’s gold mine – Ramino Rivera, Marcelo Rivera, and Dora Sorto (who was 8 months pregnant) – were murdered. In 2010, Adalberto Figuroa, leader of the Honduran NGO Movimiento Ambientalista de Olancho, was shot. This past New Year’s Eve, Sri Lankan environmentalist Ketheeswaran Thevarajah was killed by a death squad for trying to preserve unique sand dunes in Jaffna. A leading Filipino activist, Dr. Gerry Ortega, who campaigned against illegal logging and mining, was gunned down in January. Apparently two hitmen were paid the equivalent of $3300 to silence him. A week later Thai environmentalist Pachern Ketkaew was attacked by a pair of gunmen, for taking principled stands protecting clean air and healthy forests. In April, Javier Torres Paz of Mexico was murdered for fighting the powerful logging industry. The deaths of environmental activists are the tip of an iceberg of intimidation and violence directed towards people working to make the world a better place.

These individuals take principled stands in the face of terrible danger in their efforts to protect our collective interest in clean air, fresh water, fertile soil, and healthy ecosystems. There are literally thousands of women and men like them around the world, fighting against poverty, injustice, inequality, and unsustainable activities. They are the epitome of moral courage, although they would never apply this description to themselves.

When we look at Canada, where citizens enjoy tremendous freedom, wealth, and security, it is disheartening to witness a dearth of moral courage in public policy and politics. The shortage of courage is a significant contributing factor in:

In Canada today it is almost impossible to conduct a serious discussion about the public policy issues that are vital to our future, such as raising taxes to pay for essential social programs; changing the health care system; reducing poverty and inequality; and taking effective action to protect the environment. For example, when the federal Liberal Party proposed a carbon tax to tackle the complex challenge of climate change, the federal Conservative Party ridiculed the idea as a “crazy,” “insane” policy that would “wreck the economy” and “screw Canadians.” Never mind that economists of all stripes endorse carbon taxes or that European nations such as Norway (also a major oil and gas producer) have successfully implemented such a tax.

Sensational sound bites are today’s grossly inadequate substitute for rational policy debates, to the enduring detriment of Canadians. Given this context, researchers need to address some vexing questions related to the shortage of courage in Canadian public policy, including:

  • Why is there such a dearth of contemporary political leaders willing to demonstrate courage?
  • How can courage be taught or cultivated?
  • How can individuals who do demonstrate courage be supported?

If we fail to address this problem, then Canada must consider President John F. Kennedy’s warning: “A nation which has forgotten the quality of courage which in the past has been brought to public life is not as likely to insist upon or regard that quality in its chosen leaders today—and in fact we have forgotten.”

Regardless of one’s political leanings, surely we can agree that Canada needs courageous public officials and public policies to tackle the intertwined social, economic, and environmental challenges of the 21st century.

David R. Boyd, Ph.D., J.D. is a Trudeau Alumnus Scholar, a Senior Associate, POLIS Project on Ecological Governance, University of Victoria and an Adjunct professor, Resource and Environmental Management, Simon Fraser University. 


Equity Matters


An excellent call to courage, David. I cringe a bit at the references to, and quotation from, JFK, as he was by no means an exemplary leader in many areas, and I thought there must be some Canadians to whom we could look for inspiration. Your questions are very important ones. What is happening to public funding for education, research, culture, and public broadcasting must be a large part of the answer.