11 June 2015
It takes courage to hand out a courage award
The stakes are far lower this time than they were when writers and artists dared honor Charlie Hebdo magazine with a Courage award for its Muslim-baiting cartoons, but the current kerfuffle over the bestowal of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award upon Caitlyn Jenner at the forthcoming ESPY awards reminds us that courage is a touchy subject. As few don't know by now, Caitlyn was once known as Bruce Jenner, and as the greatest athlete in the world for having won the decathlon at the 1976 Summer Olympics. More recently he was known as an appendage to the Kardashian family, and people are bound to speculate over whether exposure to that particular milieu contributed to Jenner's decision to undergo a sex change, though some may have suspected something from the time Bruce appeared in the Village People musical Can't Stop the Music back in 1980. For any athlete, active or retired, to admit to non-standard expressions of sexuality is still considered courageous by many; I note, for instance that last year's Ashe winner was Michael Sam, the first active openly-gay professional football player. It's also worth noting that the award is named for Arthur Ashe not just because of his pioneering accomplishments as a black tennis player but also because he was deemed courageous for publicizing his terminal diagnosis of AIDS (from an infected blood transfusion) in the early 1990s. In this context honoring Jenner should be uncontroversial, but it is not. Many people, including some with bully pulpits in the media, question the honor, either because they don't find Jenner's decision so courageous anymore -- some see it as a publicity stunt -- or because, following the award to Sam last year, they see it as the forcing of an agenda down the throat of the sports world. Some have proposed nominees they deem more worthy, most notably the late Lauren Hill, who played college basketball despite a terminal brain tumor. But every criticism of the award to Jenner, and every implicit criticism of Jenner, may only confirm the justice of the courage award. As with Charlie Hebdo, people stumble over the idea that courage, a value unto itself, can be appraised in an otherwise value-free context. Critics of Charlie Hebdo deny the premise that you can honor the cartoonists for courage without implicitly endorsing the contents of cartoons many deem hateful toward the inoffensive majority of Muslims. From this perspective courage isn't an end unto itself, but a means to an end that determines the value of courage toward that end. But with both the cartoonists and Caitlyn Jenner the point of honoring them seems to be that courage is precisely their defiance of judgments. Charlie Hebdo, from this perspective, is courageous precisely because so many consider the cartoonists blasphemers, infidels or bigots, while many consider Jenner courageous precisely because others consider a transgender person a pervert or a creep. But precisely because many will conclude that critics of Jenner like the sportscaster Bob Costas are bigots or reactionaries, I suppose we also have to give them credit for courage on the same grounds for which Jenner and Charlie are honored. The more interesting debate, should we ever see it, will be over whether courage really can or should be recognized as an end unto itself, but we probably won't see many celebrities at that one.