First of all, let me get this out of the way:
I’ve been thinking about heroes ever since that pilot landed his plane in the Hudson River, but things really came to a head with this rescue of the ship captain in the Great Somali Pirate Debacle of Aught-Nine. His crew is calling him a hero for giving himself up so they could go free, and he is. I consider that a hero with no qualms or rationalization. But then I start thinking about online debates I saw about whether Captain Chelsey Sullenberger (the third) was a hero just for landing his plane. Sure, he saved all those people, they argued, but he also saved himself. Sure, he landed the plane in a hard way, they said, but pilots are SUPPOSED to land their planes. What does he want? they wondered. A cookie? The question boiled down to if you could be a hero by accident by doing something normal. He was very good at his job, and lucky. Does that make Captain Sully heroic?
And THIS debate reminded me of the movie The Incredibles, of all things. There is a very serious point that Mr. Incredible makes about what it means to be a “Super,” and what Gadget Boy (I forget his unofficial sidekick turned nemesis’s name right now) was doing with technology to undermine the Supers: If everyone can do what the Supers do, then no one is super. If kindergarten students are given a graduation for starting first grade, is high school graduation less meaningful? In general conversation and all over the place online, superlative language is tossed about like the non-specific adjectives our sixth-grade English teachers warned us against. If every funny moment is “comic gold,” how can we ever identify what is really, truly funny? If all kids are gifted in their own way, how can we make sure that officially “gifted” kids (yes, there is a formal psychological definition for them) can get the additional resources they need to develop their talents? How can we focus on and identify them in a crowd?
Part of the problem is the mass media, and I don’t mean that journalists are (necessarily) guilty of overstating cases. The problem is that it is getting easier by the day to report first impressions. It’s not an accident that it really does take several decades to determine which literary works are classics–it takes time to test whether a novel’s themes resonant with the universal human experience or just tap into contemporary life. One really does have to see all episodes of Seinfeld before making a top ten list of funny moments of Seinfeld that has any meaning. If we were all sitting around at work just gabbing about how funny a TV show was the night before, we wouldn’t really ascribe much meaning to it a week later when we’d decided the next episode was even funnier. It’s putting it into print that makes it seem more important, and all these archives and all these blogs and all this Internet nonsense is piling up and in some weird Picasso way of experiencing all the dimensions at once, we can read in five minutes ten different references that call every episode of a show “brilliant” or “classic” or “most .” It starts to wear words out. In defense of the nameless, faceless masses, no one really utters their first impressions with any idea that it will stick around forever–our hunter-gatherer ancestors who evolved their brains to suit their transient, illiterate lifestyle had no reason to believe off-the-cuff remarks would bear any weight a year later. To crudely paraphrase an entire Michael Shermer book (The Mind of the Market), our poor brains just can’t comprehend the communication revolution that has taken us from cave paintings to the Interwebs in only 20,000 years. We are still primally in awe of print, I guess, and so believe that everything written down was seriously intended, and thus worthy of cynical mockery when it looks stupid the next day.
Blah blah blah… I am sort of off topic. Not really, though. We are used to the overuse of words to the point where they can no longer communicate real meaning. Every kid cannot be a genius. Every television show cannot be comic gold. Every scientific result cannot be a breakthrough. Words like these require a certain elitism. They are by definition the best of the best, and thus have a finite membership. But is hero a word in that category? If every single person on the planet does something amazing and gets called “heroic,” does that cheapen the use of the word for someone who does something really amazing and heroic? Are small acts of heroism possible? You can’t be sort of a genius–you are a genius or you are not a genius. But is saving the life of one stray cat as heroic as landing a plane safely? Is landing a plane safely on a runway as heroic as landing a plane on a river? Is heroism just a matter of extremes, or of rare events, or of correct attitudes later?
SIDE NOTE: I did enjoy pondering with the makers of the Geena Davis movie, Hero, if who does a heroic thing matters as much as the heroic behavior. I know there were cheesy parts of that movie, but it’s the kind of topic that could keep drunk or caffeine-buzzed college kids going all night. There’s probably a thesis paper in there somewhere, too. Students, have at it!
There’s an increased cultural awareness of heroes right now, with all the superhero stuff in movies and TV, so I think it has elevated the term in the public consciousness. We are asked to decide in fictional contexts a lot lately if superheroes are heroic or using their powers for evil. But the actual word is broad enough to encompass all the common usages lately–it covers instances from myth to valor to great skill. Landing a plane well is heroic. Offering yourself for your crewmates is heroic. Sylar is heroic, or superheroic, or both, or evil, or still up for debate. Or was a few episodes in to Season 3, when I stopped watching his show. But I think the term can be used frequently and for small occasions without devaluing the achievements and bravery of rare, enormous events.
And then there’s this:
This is dancing rehab out of the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines. Watching these guys, I believe that dancing can save the world. Would that make every dancer a hero? Maybe. Does their holding up of a poster of Anne Frank make her a hero? I don’t want to be the person who goes on record forever (because nothing on the Internet ever dies) for questioning the heroism of Anne Frank, so I’ll just ask myself if I could have behaved with such serenity and courage–even privately–in the face of impending doom. She did do that. I’ll let you, Gentle Reader, decide if that is valor.
It probably is.