MSNBC’s Chris Hayes has taken all kinds of static for saying that military service is not an automatic qualification for being a hero. Some said he was being unpatriotic. Others said it was an inappropriate remark on Memorial Day weekend. But aside from yelling such an assertion during the ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, I can’t think of a time when it’s inappropriate to express that opinion. That’s what freedom is about, right?
I’d feel that way whether or not I agreed with Hayes’ sentiment. But I do. I bristle at the overuse of the word “hero.” I feel like we’ve expanded its definition to cover “inspiration,” “role model” and “hardworking person,” which not only dilutes the meaning of heroism, but also makes it harder to defend what should be a perfectly defensible position.
Being any combination of inspiration, role model and/or hardworking person is something worthy of credit. And anyone who degrades those qualities invites valid criticism. But such qualities are not necessarily synonymous with being a hero.
True heroism, if there is such a thing, would seem to involve sacrifice above and beyond what’s expected of someone. It’s a fluctuating bar depending on the person and circumstance. Which is why it’s so difficult to define.
It’s tempting to say a hero is someone who puts themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis — but does that make every member of the armed forces, or every firefighter, police officer, medic or anyone else with a potentially dangerous job a hero? Is heroism as simple as a career choice? If so, doesn’t that diminish the value of being a hero?
Is a hero someone who stands up for their beliefs? Not necessarily. In nations with free speech, there’s little genuine peril in publicly advocating for anything (especially when the issue is socially acceptable or otherwise not conducive to angering violent people). And when someone’s beliefs do attract danger, it’s not heroism that drives people — it’s security in the righteousness of principle. Which would make some of them heroes and some foolish fanatics.
Is a hero someone who sacrifices their well-being for the sake of another? That sounds like a better definition. But again, it goes back to the job question — many people electively do this for a living. Is someone a hero for doing their job? And even if it isn’t part of a job, many people train for such situations and react out of instinct. Is it heroic to act on instinct, or otherwise do something you’re prepared to do?
Is a hero someone who dies or gets injured over a selfless act? Maybe. But that also doesn’t seem like it should be automatic. Or the primary definition of heroism. Heroes and martyrs shouldn’t be interchangeable. Do heroes always need to be in situations of conflict?
It’s easier to say who’s not a hero: the person who switches on your power after a storm. Entertainers or athletes by sole virtue of being good at what they do. Babies. Someone clinging to life after an accident. Political commentators. And that’s fine. Not everyone you look up to has to be a hero. Again, inspiration, role model, hardworking person. All worth respect, all different.
If anything, it’s probably best to have fewer heroes in the world. The word implies some extraordinary, pedestal-raising quality in flawed human beings. Since most heroes don’t assign the tag to themselves, it’s a descriptive that really says more about us (and our desire for impossible perfection) than the people to whom we grant it. With that, I’ll conclude this with the end of a newspaper column I wrote years ago on the same subject:
Be your own hero. If you’re not who you want to be, then what’s the point?