Tea Uglow on bravery and fear

Can you really pick and choose whether to be brave? Tea Uglow, Creative Director of Google Creative Lab in Sydney, examines society’s understanding of fear and bravery, and the clichés and limitations it may contain

It’s time for me to fess up. I’m really brave. Apparently. There are a lot of wise words already written about bravery and fear. I’m not about to add to them here. Instead, I’m going to stand them up, push them over, and then feel smug. That’s not brave either, because I’m not actually brave, at least not in the way that you perhaps think of the word. But at the end of this I might suggest what being brave looks like to me.

It’s a speech writer’s dream, to perfectly boil down the essence of that human juxtaposition: fear and bravery. What is bravery? What is fear? When does one become the other? What do the poets make of it – the speech writers of our limbic reality – our rock stars?

“Expose yourself to your deepest fear; after that, fear has no power, and the fear of freedom shrinks and vanishes. You are free.” Jim Morrison

Other rock stars have said very similar things, albeit more mundanely. “Find what you are afraid of, face it, and then you won’t be afraid of it anymore,” said Marilyn Manson and, actually, now I come to think about it, I’m pretty sure my mum used to tell me that, and my coach, and the guy who ran the Scouts, and the headmaster, and every US film ever made, and, like a gazillion books. And, basically, you all mean exposure therapy, right?

Clearly we are talking about more than simply that here. When we say bravery, we mean genuine social risk. Not overcoming an abstract fear that would not actually hurt you without some quite bad luck. Bravery and fear are not concrete things. You cannot ‘fight’ fear, you cannot ‘escape’ it. You can own fear. Which is, I guess, Jim’s point, but without fear you’re not ‘free’.

Exposure therapy is invaluable and brilliant, but it is not about fear and ­bravery, it is about neuroplasticity and illogic. It’s about acknowledging that we live in a world where we construct our own invisible boundaries and walls to keep us ‘safe’. And that those walls can be rebuilt.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Nelson Mandela

See, Madiba had this down far better. But it’s still the same old rhetoric. His bravery was not overcoming an abstract notion of fear, it was being incarcerated and tortured for his beliefs. Some might say it was being part of a violent struggle. Others would disagree.

It is hard to invoke the existential drama of this dichotomy, the balancing act of dread and fortitude, the truth of the human spirit.

It does not slide easily into car commercials. Too many words about bravery are really an attempt to appropriate what is implied, rather than actually to act, to risk, to be brave. We know already that if car companies were brave they would stop making cars that burn fossil fuel. Instead they perform small acts of goodness without risk, that also fall short of securing safer futures for their recipients, a very common trait known as pathological altruism. Or they simply wave the banner of solidarity, for a week, or a month, or just the length of a campaign, or the depth of a press release.

Too often we look at creative work that is ‘brave’ the way the arts community regards something ‘avant garde’ or ‘experimental’ – in the language itself is the conviction that everyone involved is going down in flames. Normally there needs to be something significant at stake. Something more than market share. More than reputation. Although those are often the only things in peril. It is hard to make FMCG products feel brave without appropriating ‘bravery’. It is noble to make a stand for the marginalised or the dispossessed, but is it brave? Yet this is how we talk about Gillette’s trans dad ­advert, or Nike, or the Brave Brands shortlist. It is surprising how often bravery is allowed to be short-lived and superficial.

As a queer, trans woman I get called brave a lot, especially in relation to LGBTQ+ rights, by people who don’t quite understand that the concept of bravery strikes a cold, dull note when you feel you have no choice but to be ‘brave’.

I am writing a book at the moment about queer speeches. It’s about the history of speaking unspeakable things, from queer people and their allies to their persecutors. I hope it will let us remember that it is ­braver to look an audience in the eye and tell your truth than to shout on Twitter or upload from your bedroom.

I am genuinely afraid. I am also weary. Yet I have barely started my fight. I’m only just armouring up. I will be fighting for trans rights until I am no longer here. Because I have no choice, what am I to do, stop asking to be treated as equal to any other human?

I will be lobbying for acceptance of the neurodiverse. Not awareness, acceptance. (By the way, stop making adverts about ­people, selling TV shows or products off the ‘bravery’ of the disabled when really disabled people aren’t brave, they’re just alive. Like you.)

I will be flailing my arms, clicking my fingers and having meltdowns in public because I have mental health conditions. So am I brave for that? I’m not really brave for telling you – because you will judge me, ­regardless. You can’t help it. Even if you judge me brave, it will be with sadness for me – you will say those words.

I’m not facing my fear. I’m just being alive, and it’s hard and tiring. And it would be easier if people didn’t make less of me because I say these things. Or because others are these things. They don’t affect my ability to make kooky creative digital cultural experiments for Google that make no sense and no money. I’d rather be celebrated for that bravery, the bravery to make work that is about the world and about the technology we are using. But I get paid, so, you know, I don’t need a medal.

At this point you probably want to know what I think bravery is? For me, person­ally, it’s holding a position, whether through action or word, that places you or people you care about at risk of humiliation, pain, death, poverty, or other social torments like disgrace or excommunication.

If, like me, you happen to hold a similar position because you are physiologically ­different to the majority, or the social values of the time, then it is about how you hold yourself publicly. How you fight for the reduction of those risks to others.

So what can we all do? Well, actually, it’s not fighting, it’s making the fighting less necessary, making the brave less brave, rallying to a cause openly and vocally and visibly and without expectation of reward. Every ally makes us a little less ‘brave’, makes my community feel a little less isolated. We don’t want to feel brave, we want to feel normal.

So, no thanks to the bravery pedestal. I would like the creative pedestal, or the kooky one at least. And if I don’t deserve it, I don’t want it. Just like my communities don’t deserve the hate they get and, strangely, don’t want it either.