On heroes and villains

by The Editor

ARTICLE: Something about sensationalism fuels the impulse to adulate or denigrate people – that is, to see them either as heroes or villains, good or bad. When that attitude is well set and pervasive in a society, the subtlety and ambiguity that marks human nature is overlooked in favour of the kind of moral absolutism that understands everything (and everyone) as either right or wrong. Not only is it temporary – one day someone is a hero, the next a villain – but often it is to misunderstand the attributes of a real hero in the first place.

On heroes and villains

By: Gareth van Onselen

11 April 2012

Were you to map in detail the generic attributes of a hero and apply them dispassionately to the people in your immediate universe, you can be fairly certain few would fit the description. For a hero has achieved something most could not, the ultimate effect of which is to improve the condition of the world around them, with little or no concern for their own welfare. And that is rare indeed. Put another way, a hero has to achieve three things: an exceptional feat, one that is to the benefit of others, and which requires sacrifice.

There is, of course, a degree of subjectivity to any such consideration. It is for this reason that the passage of time is often a helpful filter when evaluating a person’s contribution; for time allows you to see things in their proper context and appropriately to weigh-up the significance of any given action. A true hero will stand tall in history.

But for those in pursuit of more immediate satisfaction, this test is of little interest. To them identifying a hero is something else entirely. Their attitude is increasingly common and worth interrogating, for its consequences are to a society’s detriment.

Rather than a form of recognition, to them identifying a ‘hero’ is a means of expression. When elevating someone to the status of hero they are merely projecting their highest aspirations, just as when denigrating someone as a villain, they are attempting to articulate their inner fears. It is the consequence of an emotional connection to a particular action or attitude, admired or resented but largely unthinking and motivated by a personal compulsion rather than rational thought. Very often, on closer inspection, their label is entirely inappropriate.

Nevertheless, the term is applied instantly, absolutely and unconditionally. There are no shades of grey. A person – now a hero – has their past, present and future merged into a good and virtuous whole; their every action filtered through their status, and justified or understood in terms of it. The actual human being, characterised by the complex contradictions and subtle ambiguity that marks us all, is forgotten. Instead, the projected ideal, a pure and entirely consistent archetype, becomes the point of reference. The imperfect nature of the former unfairly gauged against the perfection of the latter. At its worst, it is a brutal business.

That necessary combination of criteria gives way to each component part: just to achieve something remarkable is hailed as heroic, or simply to act in society’s best interest, acclaimed as great – each a perfectly acceptable reason to instantaneously elevate someone to a lofty height (or, in the opposite direction, should they fail in some way, to bring them to their knees).

And, ironically, because any determination is subjective, it is neither permanent nor consistent. Just as overnight an absolute hero might be transformed into a complete villain, depending on which emotional trigger was last pulled, so any hero is simultaneously a villain, depending on whom you speak to.

It is an environment in which moralisers thrive: the adulation and the denigration, the possibility of violently tearing someone down or instantly setting them up, both the source of much cruel amusement. The result is a world of extremes: where the good are exalted as gods and the bad abused as devils, and often they swap places in the blink of an eye.

Here the words ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are significant. These are moral judgments, a handy euphemism for ‘heroes’ or ‘villains’ respectively. As such, they are much sought by moralisers because they provide the comfort of absolutism and lend themselves to categorising rather than appreciation or understanding.

But this is to the detriment of a society, because it dilutes an ability properly to understand human nature and what constitutes a significant achievement. Standards and principles become negotiable. To the point where everyone is a hero and no one is exceptional in any meaningful way. And the consequence of that is our aspirations are attenuated in turn.

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