On Being a Hero

· Logos/Ethos

November, 2017

It shouldn’t be a surprise to any observer of American culture over the past 40 years that we have fallen under the intoxicating spell of “language inflation”. What was originally the linguistic product of the youth culture of the 60’s and ‘70’s has been sent into the stratosphere by hyper-politization and the social media.

At first relatively harmless (when cheeseburgers and teenage boyfriends became “awesome”), language inflation has become dangerous in its ability to influence social life, citizenship, governance, and common sense. We are at a point where the absurd has become the commonplace and our careless use of (and instantaneous creation of ) language is partly to blame. The day-to-day emanations from Washington will hold onto first place for the invention of absurdity for foreseeable future.

We are in an age, apparently, when it is quite easy to become either a “victim” or a “hero”. These “honorifics” are granted or seized in an alarmingly facile manner. I have punctuated that word for a purpose. Honor, throughout history, was a condition granted to or conferred on a subject by other people. One’s act would not have been described as “honorable” unless it drew the approbation or praise of one’s society for its goodness. And yet, we have, through our language, somehow elevated a victim (a deceived person, possibly even hapless) into a position of honor. The ability to elicit the pity of other people is far from an honorable position. Nevertheless, the current class of victims seems have risen beyond the state of pity and into the realm of honor.

At this point, the bar is historically low for achieving either status, hero or victim.  But let’s focus on our current use of the term hero.

Virtually all dictionary definitions of the word hero link it immediately to the idea of courage. In truth, one cannot arrive at an understanding of what heroism is unless one understands what courage is. Courage is a moral virtue in which one acts in pursuit of some (morally justifiable) good despite the presence of fear in his or her soul. In short, courageous people are in a state of terror, but they do the right thing anyway. This is what makes them heroes. A thief, fearful of being caught, cannot rightly be considered courageous for pulling off an elaborate heist. He is not courageous, and therefore not a hero, because he is not in pursuit of a morally justifiable good.

The heart of my thesis (and the one I expect will draw the most passionate response) is that if in the exercise of one’s duty, a trained, skillful professional who is not in the habit of experiencing fear in the exercise of his or her service, cannot accurately be called courageous when they perform well and therefore cannot be called a hero.

By example, I was recently in an exhilarating discussion with a group of film lovers. The topic was the role of Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the Marshall who single-handedly stood up to the evil Miller Gang in “High Noon”. Kane was a true hero. The reason is, he was terrified of the prospects of the showdown. He tried unsuccessfully to deputize other citizens. To a man, they all lacked the courage. Just prior to the shootout he went so far as to write his last will and testament. He was alone and he knew he was going to die … and he stood up to Frank Miller anyway. That’s a hero.

On the contrary, are the vast majority of the film roles played by John Wayne, the man universally hailed as portraying the quintessential American (western) hero. I’m not familiar with his entire output, but off-hand I can’t remember any of Wayne’s characters ever being scared. If they weren’t, then their acts were not truly courageous. He might have been a good gunfighter, but he wasn’t a hero. (Interesting sidebar: John Wayne, one of a long line of right-wing “chicken hawks”, thought “High Noon” was un-American. Perhaps because Will Kane did the unthinkable before the shootout. He cried.)

A personal, moral transformation must take place for one to become a hero. The hero must make a choice, be willing, despite enormous fear, to give up something of great personal value (life, health, safety, career, even reputation) to preserve a moral good for others. It is no small achievement. We should save this word, be protective of it, and honor only those who truly deserve it.

Remember Sully of “Miracle on the Hudson Fame”?  This is yet another example of language inflation. I’m afraid Sully isn’t a hero. What Sully is, is an extraordinarily competent pilot, one who should be universally admired for his skill. But if all the accounts I have read or seen on screen are true, Sully acted without fear. That being the case, he did not display courage and is therefore not a hero. He should, however, remain in our estimation as one helluva pilot and worthy of our respect.

Likewise, not everyone who dons a uniform, either of law enforcement, fire protection, sports, or the military is a hero. And yet, in our language and in our current estimation, we have come to assign them all the honorific of hero simply by the nature of their association with those fields. People who serve in the military or as part of our first responder network as clerical managers, lawyers, cooks, mechanics, engineers, uniformed roadside construction protectors, materiel suppliers, public relations spokespersons are not heroes. The nature of their work does not require them to work under conditions of terror. I’m afraid to say, also, that if an errant bomb drops on their backline position, they would not have died as heroes, despite what their mourning loved one would like to hear.

But was their initial decision to join the forces an act of courage in itself?  Perhaps, if they were truly frightened but went ahead anyway. Only they could answer that. But one could also imagine that their initial fear would dissipate after a few weeks behind a desk or in the motor pool. Most jobs simply don’t give us much of a chance to be heroic.

It is time to recalibrate. We have come to a point where we are trivializing important moral virtues by assigning them to people and events that aren’t worthy of the claim. We ought to use language carefully and, in so doing, maintain our relationship to the truth.