As someone who has come to believe that a better world will be one where people have less control over others and more control over our own lives, I have to admit that I have a bit of skepticism when it comes to heroes.
Partly this is because, as I wrote in the first part of this article, I believe heroes are sometimes constructed for us, not to inspire others to acts of great heroism, but instead to reinforce the values that keep certain people or systems in positions of power.
I used the example then of the mythologisation of ANZAC soldiers. But I think that it is much more widespread than that. Look at the examples in our society of “heroes” – the fables we tell are of macho action heroes who violently struggle against evil foes for the sake of some noble cause. Or our real life heroes are either celebrities who through some kind of talent or lucky accident have become iconic figures and now have their every thought and action reported to us; or sports stars who because they have excelled at their sport are seen to be examples of the virtues we believe in.
Now disregarding (though it surely is a worthy question) whether these are people who deserve to be singled out as important, we should ask what relevance do these heroes have to our actual lives? If these people are role models we wish to emulate,. How do we do that when our lives are so rarely about having shootouts with bad guys or being able to run/catch/hit a ball well?
If you are a woman, it is even less relevant. For those without a penis, your heroic role is to be a beautiful romantic interest for the male, inspiring him with your good looks to achieve great deeds.
Basically, the heroes exalted by our mass media have nothing to do with improving ourselves. If we ourselves were living heroic lives, then we would probably no longer be watching TV or reading magazines to get our fix of important people. And that is the opposite of what these media companies want. The purpose is escapism, or substitution – to make up for the lack of heroism in our own lives we become passive consumers of hero stories.
For this model of vicarious heroism to keep growing, two things need to happen – the storytellers have to keep coming up with heroes who satisfy our desires, and we have to keep living lives that are less heroic. But if that’s our trajectory, what kind of people do we expect to become? What kind of world will we be living in?
An interesting question is this: to create a world where individuals take more responsibility for it being a better place, do we first have to tear down the hero myth?
In the late 1970’s, punk bands around the world were championing the idea of Do It Yourself. Anyone can be in a band, they said. Anyone can put out a record, be a music writer. Mark Perry, one of the early fanzine writers, famously printed a diagram of the E, A and D chord shapes. “Here are three chords,” said the caption. “Now go start a band.”
With this new democratisation of music, most saw it necessary to tear down the heroes of another generation that were taking up space on bedroom walls and turntables. “No Elvis, no Beatles, no Rolling Stones!” sang The Clash on one of the early punk anthems. Of course, breaking down rockstar mythology is not that simple and before long The Clash were the new rockstars of a new commodified style. But that’s another story. (You may at home be questioning the relevance of these whole last two paragraphs. But I just really like punk music, ok?)
I think at some level, encouraging a world where people take personal responsibility means deconstructing the myth of heroism and knocking down a few pedestals. To make something new, you have to break something old. But possibly the idea of heroes is something too ingrained in us to do away with entirely. And as I’ve already said, heroes can be a part of what inspires us to take action. It just depends on who that hero is and what message they are sending.
In the last few years I have certainly used the actions of a few remarkable individuals, for instance courageous whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning or Edward Snowden, to try to inspire myself and others to action. A group of us recently commemorated the centenary of Gallipoli our own way by showing a “Field Punishment No.1”, a film about conscientious objectors from New Zealand who in that war were sent to the front lines and tortured but refused to fight or even hold a gun. It is an incredible story, and there is no shortage of people around the world today or through history that have done amazing things that can inspire us.
I think a new paradigm of viewing heroes is possible. Where we hold up a person as an example, but only relevant to how much they inspire us to heroic acts ourselves.
Straight away, we can stop fussing about every detail of someone’s life, either out of obsession with them or a need to discredit them by finding faults. We can also discard hero myths that are built on simplistic notions of good and evil, since by and large that is not the world we live in (sorry Mad Max). A healthy amount of skepticism is valuable in analysing the merits of actions and also whose interests are served by elevating any person to hero status. But at the same time, we shouldn’t be cynical, because the actions of any person around us are potentially inspiring to others and so we should support people where we can.
But most importantly, we should be thinking that any virtue is only valuable in the way that we live it out. Courage, sacrifice and comradery might be great, but if war is the only way to live out these values, they are only ever going to get people killed. There must be another way to live them out (William James suggested “voluntary poverty” – and that was even before World War One), otherwise they are useless. The same applies to any virtue. What matters is not whether it makes for a great film character but if it can help us to make our lives and the lives of those around us better.
So basically, what I’m trying to propose here is a world where we spend less time admiring heroes and more time trying to do heroic things ourselves. Which surely can’t be a bad thing? I mean, everybody wants to be a hero, don’t they?
The question is, what do we want out of heroism? Is it to be loved and admired by the masses? Deep down most of us would like this at some level, but even supposing that superstars weren’t something constructed to sell ideas or products, logically we can’t all be this kind of hero – there just isn’t enough room at the top for everyone. But to break the shackles of apathy and conformity to do acts that embody the values we believe in? That we can all do, and we don’t even need a stage, let alone an arch-nemesis or damsel in distress. Most likely it will actually win us friends and maybe a few admirers (though probably a few enemies too to be honest). They say people don’t believe in heroes anymore, but our best chance of a better world might be us becoming the heroes we’ve always wanted.