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
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.
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.
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.