The pitfalls of heroism

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - September 1, 2020 - 12:00am

When we were young, we all wanted to be heroes. Many of us were raised on stories of good versus evil, heroes versus monsters. These stories paint life in black and white, because it’s the easiest way to teach children what their parents (or their community) believe to be right and wrong. Many fictional characters are created precisely for this pedagogical purpose, to play the role of hero and show a child the proper way to behave.

But when the label of hero is applied to a human being, things become more complicated. Today, a day after we celebrate National Heroes, I feel that it is important for us to take stock of the word “hero”, and the implications of its use on real human beings.

When we call someone a hero, it may say more about us as a community than about the hero himself. One of the ways that anthropologists learn about a culture and what it values – is by looking at the heroes of that culture. In many ancient cultures, where life was characterized by warfare, those heroes were almost uniformly warriors who built their reputation through slaughter. But the values of a community evolve with time, and while there continues to be a strong association between heroism and protective acts of violence, modern society has expanded the scope of actions deemed to be heroic. Where once the roster of heroes was dominated by male warriors, now there are many women who are considered heroes, and many who are celebrated for non-violent resistance or acts of charity and assistance.

This is one of the reasons why the heroism of great men and women in the past will always be subject to debate in the public sphere. The values of the society that lauded the hero in the past may no longer be the values emerging in the present, or at least may be competing with them. There is also the reality that there will always be those who wish to co-opt the achievements (or failures) of the past for their own ends.

But it is also because of the fact that humans are multi-faceted creatures. Evil people are capable of heroic acts – although this alone does not make them virtuous. Virtuous people are capable of failing at heroism – and this does not make them less virtuous. The last point is important to make because to believe otherwise is to take what should by definition be exceptional, and expect it from everyone, every time.

And the label of “hero” does come with expectations. The one that remains constant in spite of the changes in society’s values is that of perseverance: heroes are defined by their ability to push on in the face of hardship. This is one of the reasons why heroes have the ability to inspire. Everyone has their own share of hardships, and when we hear of heroes who are able to overcome larger hurdles and achieve great triumphs, we feel that we too can do the same. We feel inspired by the suffering that the hero endures. And that is fine for those we call heroes in fiction, or who have long since passed on.

But when we view the suffering of living human beings in the same light – when the pain of others sparks inspiration but without a desire to render aid– then the label of “hero”may become problematic.

With the COVID-19 pandemic, many have been assigned the label of “hero” and there is plenty of reason for such admiration and high esteem, which are well-deserved. Nothing is wrong with acknowledging heroic acts by calling someone a hero. But being called a hero also comes with the expectations of an entire community.

A recent article from the World Economic Forum noted that those called “heroes” often feel like impostors, pressured to embody an ideal that few can live up to. The label can also cause a backlash amongst those who would rather call attention to their own sacrifices. There are also those who use the word “hero” as a way of limiting the discourse around their target, for if we are focused on the extraordinary bravery of heroes, there is less attention given to those who are unable to rise to those standards, to those whose plights demand action and assistance from the rest of us.

In an article in the Atlantic, a grocery worker fought back against the label of hero, saying: “I’m grateful to be acknowledged for the risky work we’re doing. … But I have a problem with all this hero talk. It’s a pernicious label perpetuated by those who wish to gain something – money, goods, a clean conscience – from my jeopardization.” Applying the label of “hero” to an entire category of people alongside the idea that the risks they bear are “part of their job” can make the label “hero” a weight instead of an accolade. Some experts refer to this as “compulsory heroism”, and it can be used to limit how the “heroic” category of people is spoken of, what narratives are pushed, and who amongst them is seen as a real representative of their group.

The “hero” label is one worn easily by the dead and the fictional – but for the living who engage in heroic action – those who are toiling and sacrificing in order to do what they can for others and for their families – what they need most may not be a label but concrete assistance. What they may need is not just adulation but also empathy.They – couriers braving the rains; security guards, the PNP and other government workers pulling long hours; parents and children adapting to remote learning – need ways to reduce the difficulties and to minimize their challenges.They need a path forward to a world where they are not seen to be superhuman.

The times we live in call for heroic action from many of us. And part of this call to action must be ensuring that the heroism of others does not result in needless martyrdom.

After all, I think one of the best ways that we can pay homage to those who have died for our country is to do everything we can to make sure that no more Filipinos need to make that sacrifice.

  • Latest
  • Trending
Are you sure you want to log out?
Login is one of the most vibrant, opinionated, discerning communities of readers on cyberspace. With your meaningful insights, help shape the stories that can shape the country. Sign up now!

or sign in with