We all know what a hero looks like and if we’re in any doubt Bonnie Tyler is on hand to remind us that he’s gotta be strong, he’s gotta be fast and he’s gotta be fresh from the fight. But without intending any disrespect to Bonnie it is probably about time that the concept of heroism be revisited. This is because heroism as a martial concept should be over and heroism as an exclusively masculine quality is also now redundant.
Interestingly the song also name checks both Hercules and Superman who, it hardly needs pointing out, are not real people. Neither of course is Achilles (pictured above as a monument to the Duke of Wellington's defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo 200 years ago). Achilles as a template for heroism does have one major virtue and that is his fallibility. If heroism is to have any currency as a modern concept it must admit of fallibility.
Lauren Laverne recently wrote persuasively in The Pool that heroes need not be men, or even people, citing as some of her own heroes Miss Piggy and Mr Toad. I certainly don’t cavil with her central premise that we should not feel constrained in selecting who our heroes are and the virtues they embody simply by reference to their gender or existence. I do however feel that a compelling argument can be made that there is a genuine benefit in identifying real life living heroes.
If you’re ever lost for small talk or are phobic to it an often intriguing insight into any person’s personality can be gleaned by asking them who their heroes are. We are used, preposterously, to games players being cited as role models but are these really the heroes we need or deserve? The public eye and the public’s voice as expressed by the media fails miserably with the concept of modern heroism. Celebrity is the currency of our age but as a model to young people or a template for how life should be lived its emptiness is profound. The media, when it does articulate heroism, does so almost solely by reference to military conflict and this, I believe, is problematic.
There is no question that jumping onto a grenade to save your comrades’ lives is a heroic act according to any definition of heroism. But when one reflects that the Afghanistan conflict cost 453 UK military lives is there not a benefit in considering what the cost of martial heroism is? If heroism remains confined to situations in which its definition entails exposure to serious risk to life or limb then what chance does heroism have of informing every day lives?
Edith Cavell shot at Dawn by the German army for treason on 12th October 1915 for helping injured soldiers escape Belgium, renowned for her assertion that ‘Patriotism is not enough’, and Maximilian Kolbe a Catholic priest killed at Auschwitz on 14th August 1941 when he volunteered himself for death in place of another camp inmate are good examples of civilians who manifested heroism by way of the ultimate self-sacrifice. Again however these actions occurred in the midst of wartime and their actions are of a nature that though we believe we might be capable of we in reality, thankfully, are extremely unlikely ever to find out.
What we need is a definition of heroism for 21st century peacetime: a cadre of people to whom we can look up to not just because they were sacrificed for politically motivated conflicts with nebulous outcomes. A helpful exercise if you don’t have a personal Valhalla at your fingertips is to take a moment to reflect on people you know in the public eye who you regard as heroic. They are of course, like Achilles, permitted their flaws: these are, after all, real people and the notion that heroism should be synonymous with perfection should be banished. Just consider for a moment what we now know about Churchill and his private life and whether he would have withstood one day’s scrutiny by the modern media.
Consider also what heroism means to you. For me its selfless action motivated by love for others without expectation of reward. In short if what you’re doing is well remunerated it is unlikely to be heroic. By this token any one of the Ebola nurses and doctors should be a paradigm example of a modern hero and yet how many of them can you name? What medals have been struck for them or parades through central London arranged?
Once you have populated your own personal Olympus a good starting point would be to tell that person why they are a hero to you. Then do what you can to publicise their achievements. It is long past time that a popular narrative of heroism achieved greater prominence.
I would suggest as somebody who deserves much greater prominence for his endeavours than he typically receives is Clive Stafford Smith who fought tirelessly for condemned mean on death row in the United States and latterly has been fighting for the rights of those still shockingly detained in Guantanamo Bay. If you share my admiration for this man and his work you may want to donate your money or your time to his laudable charity Reprieve.
Film’s desperate flogging of the superhero dead horse encapsulates the young and not so young’s yearning for escapism from a difficult and complicated world but the truth is there are heroes all around us and once they are given their rightful prominence you can set about the most important task of all and search for the hero inside yourself.