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Reflections on ‘The Problem of Heroism’

By Allan Palmer, September 8, 2015

This is a reflective commentary on the post ‘The Problem of Heroism’ originally published in Heroism Today.

Psychologists Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo (2006, p. 31) speak of the “subtleties” of heroism that have been lost. The common conception of heroism, which is more of an exaggerated, overemphasised ideal, is juxtaposed against ‘ordinary’ reality. An ordinary wo/man who as a result of a single noble act or acts of bravery (usually in sequence) rises to the status of hero or superhuman, sealed into this realm therein. But if we speak of the “banality of heroism” as Franco and Zimbardo (2006) do … both realities are in fact merged.

I believe the banality of heroism is becoming prevalent with the use of the word ‘hero’ by the media and subsequently the population at large.  When a man bangs on the door to let his neighbour know that his house is on fire, the man turns into a hero.  Surely this is common humanity.  A hero would be the man who climbs through the window and rescues the man from inside the burning building.  Or is it the man who stands on top of the rubble of a collapsed building, waiting with open arms and whisking the baby out of the arms of the rescuer, (who has selflessly risked life and limb climbing inside the rubble to rescue the baby) and then presenting the baby to the waiting media?

Introducing the concept of banality by no means denigrates the centrality of heroism in day to day life. If anything it escalates it, paving the way for a system where everyone is a hero. 

If everyone is a hero, then it can be argued that no-one is a hero, as it would then become an everyday occurrence.  Would we then have to catergorise the degree of heroism:

The High Definition hero:  Big profile, lots of press

The Enduring Hero:  The parents who battle with their child’s terminal illness

The ‘Joe Bloggs’ Hero:  Rescued the neighbour’s cat from the drain

The Professional Hero:  Military/Police/Ambulance Officer

And then there is the assumption of this model that once hero status is achieved, that defines one as a ‘moral’ ‘noble’ character for the rest of their lifespan – that the journey is somehow a self-complete and enclosed process. This renders a hero frozen in time, a narrow account of their larger life story leading to the idealisation of the individual and their ascent to god-like status, as per the definition of ‘hero’ – is this realistic?

Winston Churchill was well aware of the noble hero and used it to further his own ambitions….

His military career would be valuable for giving him the fame needed to enter politics, however: As Churchill wrote his mother,

A few months in South Africa would earn me the SA medal and in all probability the Company’s Star. Thence hot-foot to Egypt—to return with two more decorations in a year or two—and beat my sword into an iron dispatch box.[2]:18–19

A fellow heroism science researcher mentioned to me recently that we might need a new word in place of ‘hero’ given its problematic nature. Maybe we do – and that would be an easier path to take, that would appease those who still smirk at what they see as the unrealistic thought of creating everyday heroes. 

I think this may just be the opportunity Kim Jong-un is looking for; maybe Saviour would be a word to use rather than the over quoted Hero!!!

It is in our darkest times that we truly need heroism – and it is in those times that its reality seems most impossible. 

This is so true.  I was thinking of the waste of life and what I truly believe to be altruistic and heroic efforts made by Khaled al-Asaad, the Syrian archaeologist who dedicated his life to the preservation of the ancient antiquities in Syria.  His heroic stance in the face of death by ISIS  to protect and preserve these gifts for the benefit of all of us is the essence of a true hero.


About the author:
Allan Palmer is a Case Officer at the National Native Title Tribunal, Perth, Australia.

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