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Why the proliferation of Heroes?

By Peter McMahon - posted Saturday, 9 March 2002


Recently, I saw on the news, our Commonwealth Games heroes returned to Australia. Not long ago our tennis heroes were winning at Wimbledon. But heroes aren’t just athletes: almost any serviceman or women who returns from anywhere near a combat zone is automatically labelled a hero, and any person, especially a child, who survives serious adversity is a hero. According to the mass media, anyway.

Well, one might say, this is just another example of the way the mass media debases the language, and so what? My answer as an academic watching students try to build a genuine capability for writing in a clear, concise and accurate fashion is that it does matter that we are constantly exposed to such sensationalist expression. Debasing the language, as Orwell reminded us, is half way to debasing thought. If we make the words meaningless then we have to invent new ones to discuss important issues.

And of course there are real heroes in life. Heroism is not just about surviving an ordeal – it is about enduring an ordeal to some purpose beyond personal gain. Basically, it means being altruistic, helping someone else without thought of personal benefit. A person who goes seeking a competition or even an ordeal and does well is not a hero. And anyone of us would do our best to survive adversity, so that is hardly heroism. If you stagger out of the bush after a plane crash, you are a survivor, but if you are carrying someone on your back, then you are a hero. And just because you say you are doing something "for your country" does not mean success automatically raises you to the status of hero.

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This obsession with heroism is a result of the great doubts assailing Australian society right now. We have always been worried about our core identity, and keen to listen to any visitor’s opinion of our land, no matter how unqualified they might be to comment. But this insecurity seems to have reached gigantic proportions lately. I see it reflected in the simplistic paternalism of our Prime Minister, who won an election promising to protect the country from a few pathetic asylum seekers. I see it in the rise of One Nation who, despite their obeisance to the usual idiocies of far-right politics, represent the explicit insecurity of people in the bush and those marginalised in the cities. I see it especially in the sad adulation of our sportsmen and women. These people are not only not heroes, but often all too fallible. Australia has been doing extra well lately in sports, but given our national obsession with sports and the resources we dedicate to it, so we should be.

But why are we so insecure? Australia is in fact an extraordinarily successful nation. We have one of the highest standards of living in the world (especially compared to Argentina, who, along with Australia, was rated the best country in the world in 1900). We have a stable, relatively functional political system (although the strains are showing). We still have some kind of natural wilderness which we are starting to properly conserve. And we are perhaps the most successful multi-cultural country on Earth. We have our problems, but compared to most places life here is very good.

So why we need to hero-worship some sportsman or woman, or some soldier or sailor back from Timor or Afghanistan, or someone overcoming illness or other adversity, is beyond me. These people may or may not be good, decent individuals with courage and integrity, but that does not make a hero.

For instance, take our increasing tendency to equate military with heroic. The real heroes of World Wars One and Two, the Korean War and even the Vietnamese War must be bemused when simply serving in the armed forces makes one a hero. Men who saved the lives of others through extraordinary courage are rare and deserve special recognition. Men and women simply doing their jobs as well trained professionals, albeit under difficult conditions, do not merit such attention.

The military recognizes genuine heroism with decorations, and there are civilian equivalents. Usually these involve more than simple professional competence or endurance. For example, some years ago a young boy in WA received an award for heroism because he had gone into the Swan River to rescue another boy who had been savaged by a shark.

Now I used to take swimming lessons as a kid near where this incident took place. Visibility in the water is only a couple of feet, and I recall thinking that it was a good thing there were no sharks in that murky water. Well, it turned out there were sharks, that they were aggressive and would attack. When that boy entered the murky river that day to help the struggling shark attack victim, knowing the shark was still somewhere out there, that was real heroism.

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People sometimes show amazing courage. Their example lifts us all, and reminds us of core values, like human solidarity. We should recognize their acts and celebrate them. Because they are heroes.

But if we keep throwing the word around like sand, bestowing it on anyone who catches the media’s attention through some achievement, we’ll have to invent a whole new word for actual heroes.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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