It has happened again. They are being talked about, feted in the news media, having television programmes celebrating their achievements, and awarded medals, titles, and status. They have been a constant and much-discussed feature of the NHS, then their presence was felt in football circles, and particularly, the European Nations Cup. Now the focus is on their return from the Tokyo Olympic Games. I speak, of course, about our “heroes” – hospital nurses, doctors, auxiliary workers, elderly care home staff, athletes, male football players; and the list could on.
The Covid-19 pandemic has given the British, and many other nations, the opportunity of exercising the language of heroism in a way that almost parallels that of military campaigns. What might have once been regarded as activities associated with duty have now become the actions of heroes.
However, heroic activity has not only been focused on NHS workers. We have used the word for English football players who were runners-up in the European Nations Cup. Just as the UK Olympic Games team gained silver and bronze medals, as well as gold, heroic status was ordained not only for winners but also for those who simply, but importantly, participated. Echoes of the situation with the work force of the NHS.
It has been said that the word “hero” is slippery, “with its significance constantly on the move”. I can recall a time when the word was used to singularly pertain to military personnel – although even here the idea of “duty” was never far from the discussion. In more recent years, the application of the word “hero” has included wider nuances, to a point where one is left to wonder whether it has been diluted of its peculiar understanding in contemporary discourse. So, it is instructive to return to some of the more basic understandings of the word.
A study of the word would invariably inform that hero is derived from the Greek word “heros”. It is particularly associated with the idea of ancient myths in Greek culture. These Greek heroes were celebrated for their great inventions and bold exploits. They were often associated with divinity. In Homer’s “The Iliad”, for example, the mother of the hero Achilles, was a goddess. The heroes themselves, however, were often of dubious character. Achilles was a brutal, vengeful, mass murderer. The activities of heroes were questionable. Odysseus, the main character of that other famous Homeric contribution to Greek literature, “The Odyssey”, was resourceful and long-suffering; but he was also arrogant, deceitful, and a coward.
There are noble tales associated with the Greek heroes. In Greek mythology there is the priestess of Aphrodite who killed herself when her lover Leander drowned while trying to swim the Hellespont to be with her. Hercules was such an illustrious person that he became a demi-god -supposed to be exalted, after death, to a place among the gods.
Whilst discounting an American understanding of “hero” which refers to a large sandwich made of a long crusty role that is sliced lengthwise and filled with meats and cheese (plus other condiments), the word has generally focused on the principal character in a play or a movie, or a novel or poem. The heroic figure may be someone who fights for a cause, someone distinguished by strength of character, nobility, or an exceptional degree of courage. An example of this could be the pilots, the heroes, who took part in the Battle of Britain.
Otherwise, a hero could be a person identified as possessing distinguished valour or enterprise in danger; one who shows fortitude in suffering or is the central personage in any remarkable action or event. It has been said that “Each man is a hero and oracle to somebody.” No doubt, the same could be applied to a woman. Hero worship, extravagant admiration for great women and men, can be likened to ancient heroes. “Hero worship exists, has existed, and will forever exit, universally among humankind.”
Now, something of the above may be identified in the discovery and description of modern-day heroes. One writer on culture has said that “Language is unstable, it gathers new force, sheds old connotations.” So, if we step back from our contemporary use of the word hero, we might discover that there are paradoxes in our use of the word.
Many of those who have gathered in the streets over the past year or so to publicly show our appreciation of NHS workers by clapping, are the same people who have voted for governments that have cut the financial provision for the NHS, or would oppose pay rises for NHS workers, or who have agreed to the imposition of austerity on many British citizens. Does clapping act as an opiate of the people?
Those who are elated by the performance of British athletes may also be persons who decry public funds (that is, taxpayer’s money) being used to professionalise numerous sports that do not strongly figure in the public imagination. Those who attach heroic significance to current football players and teams – endlessly following every on-field exploit and cataloguing numerous off-field rumours – forget that no British football team has won the final of a European Nations championship, not to mention World Cup, since the often-described “heroics” of the 1966 English World Cup winning squad. Other examples could be forthcoming.
It is to be considered that the danger of using the language of heroism is that it softens or silences “critique and debate”. After all, is it not true that heroes are not supposed to complain? They must not speak out about inadequacies existing in their field of service and achievement; they must be triumphant in the face of adversity; they must mask disappointments with false shows of grace. That is the expected trade-off consistent with the recognition, awards, and exaltations associated with their exploits.
In short, we should expect heroes to be professional, when all around them amateurism, inadequacy, and mediocrity reign. It is also true that the truly heroic person is one who performs with “a sense of vocation and professionalism” – not out of some heroic sense of sacrifice or desire for recognition and reward.
Charlotte Higgins, a journalist with The Guardian newspaper, tells the story of a GP based in Yorkshire who, during the public display of support for NHS workers, went out of her front door at 8 p.m. on a Thursday – but only, she said, “out of politeness.” The GP hated being called a “hero”. Her hard work on the job – what others regarded as her heroism – was precisely what the GP herself regarded as unheroic. “If I was a hero,” she said, “I would stand up and call out the government, but I am not, and I go to work and bumble on. A bit like the soldiers led by buffoons who were told to go over the top to be greeted by gunfire – except I am highly trained and should know better.”