In the March issue of The Atlantic, Michael Ignatieff, philosopher, author and erstwhile candidate for the Canadian Prime Ministership, writes about heroes in a way that requires rebuttal. “The Hero Europe Needed” is a deeply gendered article and in his failure to recognize that, Ignatieff presents social constructs as essential truths and fails to find his way to a much more interesting and necessary story.
Ignatieff has failed to define his terms. He uses the term “heroic” synonymously with “courageous”. They are not synonyms, since “heroic” requires a societally-located approval that courage doesn’t. Courage is a quality that all human beings can aspire to, one we can attempt to cultivate in themselves. We can use the adjectival form to describe ourselves and others, as in “she is courageous”, or I wish I were courageous enough to …”. A man or woman who aspires to courage is a person we can perhaps trust. But a man who aspires to heroism – a man willing to suffer and perhaps die for a societally-approved cause — is someone we should immediately contain and put away, perhaps in manacles.
Heroism is a label looking for a referent, not a human quality that we ought to attempt to cultivate in ourselves. To be a hero is to be a savior, it is to be one who does what others lack the courage to do and thus to be unique and to be required by the weak. Heroism requires weakness in others. While anybody can become courageous, heroism can only be a label we pin on someone other than ourselves. To call someone a hero is to idealize that person.
When Ignatieff says “Heroism is essential to politics” he is saying something other than what he intends, which is simply that courage is essential to politics. But his words say that politics require there be someone we can label as heroic, someone who functions as a savior of the weak, someone we can see as mysteriously “other”. When Ignatieff says “we are short of heroes everywhere these days”, he actually means we are short of people who use their courage to further certain societal aims. Such a person can be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and the medal “hero” pinned to his chest. We can push such a man to the head of the line and the rest of us can cease trying to be courageous.
This leads me to the second term that Ignatieff has failed to define. The word “we” as he uses it seems to refer to all of us, all humanity. But the word ”hero” is a strongly patriarchal term, one that powerful men encourage young men to pursue. It’s a masculine ideal that enables powerful men to persuade young men to die for them. Men are taught to be heroes, saviours of women and children and other helpless beings, superior to other men — and to seek heroes.
When he says “seeing a hero in disarray delivers a jolt” what he is really saying is that reality jolts idealism. “We’d much prefer to remember the triumphant images” is tantamount to saying we prefer the image to the reality. I wouldn’t; I would like to be excluded from Ignatieff’s “We”, and in fact I am because it is primarily a construction of masculinity to look for a man worthy of being labelled a hero.
As a woman invisible, and even negated, within Ignatieff’s masculine “we”, I am particularly irked by his statement that “we tend to think of heroism as mysteriously individual . . . but it is in fact a social virtue”. The truth is that men tend to look for and even create men who are uniquely different from other men, singular men who can be idealized and looked up to as representatives of what it can truly be to be a man. Men almost never make a hero of a woman; women even more rarely make heroes of their own gender. The desire to hero-worship is primarily masculine. It starts young, when boys are encouraged to regard sports stars as heroes. It seems men are conditioned to behave as sheep around a shepherd. Is this a “social virtue”?
If anything heroism, if one holds it up as a personal ideal, is a vice, rather than a virtue. It requires a vast sea of weak “others” who need rescuing by the singular, superior man. I don’t think of heroism at all most of the time, and when I do I see the desire to be a hero as the masculine pathological equivalent of women’s tendency to caretake and enable. Both men and women want to be saviours, women of men, and men of the weak.
In failing to define his terms, in failing to recognize that his perspective is part of the construct of masculinity, Ignatieff ignores the more interesting question of why men want to see men such as Havel as a hero and why they are so disappointed when they turn out to be merely human. Havel himself seems to have been aware of the dichotomy between real and ideal image, and to have seen the dangers of conflating the courageous and the heroic: “He realized that for all his determination to resist evil, he was no superhero, but only a frail human being .”
We cannot be seduced by our own courage, but we can be seduced by the label “hero” if it is applied to us or if we are so blind as to think we can apply it to ourselves. Ignatieff brings this up when he says Havel was seduced by “global celebrity” and by the need to feel “indispensable” and to have “confirmation that he still mattered.” The masculine need to hero worship is destructive. It often destroys the men it labels heroes – just look at the sports fields and stadiums for the corpses of “heroes” left behind by the frail and too often tawdry men forced to occupy those bodies until they were finally unveiled as the flawed men they actually were.
This article would be far more interesting if it focused on the ways in which one courageous man was seduced by the masculine desire to be seen as a hero, abetted by the masculine desire to shoehorn someone into that role. Then Ignatieff would be using his intelligence to deconstruct masculinity, and that’s something the world needs far more than it needs a hero.
It seems more than coincidental that at the same time this article appeared in The Atlantic, a short story on the subject of heroism appeared in Harper’s Magazine (March 2015). In “No Slant to the Sun”, T.C. Boyle tells the story of a recently retired man, Sten, who thinks of himself not as retired but as “ pre-dead,”and whose masculinity is in question now that he is merely one of thousands of interchangeable old people who tramp around the third world in tourist expeditions, thirsting for life as they approach inevitable death. When he returns to his tour group after taking a leak in the bush, he witnesses the group being robbed at gunpoint by three local young thugs, who appear not to be scared by what they’re doing. “Why would they be,” he asks, “This was easy pickings, old people, seniors so frightened and hopeless they could barely twist the watches off their wrists, let alone defend themselves”.
When one of the thugs turns his back on Sten, he is furious at being taken for “nothing, less than nothing, just old and weak and useless.” In this fury, he attacks the thug, crushing his larynx and killing him. One of the women in the group thanks him, telling him “You’re a hero, a real hero”, but no one would look at him: “He wasn’t one of them, not anymore – he was something else now.”
Tellingly, Sten tells us he was only doing what he had been taught to do as a young man in the army, and “does anybody ever forget that?” he asks. Indeed, the various conditioning that goes into the construction of “masculinity” can never be forgotten, although it can be overcome by those men who find a reason to deconstruct what society has made of them.
Sten, whose name makes an obvious reference to his character, shows contempt for people who don’t know how to hold a gun. The robber thug holds his weapon like “A shoe. A book. A used CD he’d found in a bin at the record shop. He didn’t respect it. He didn’t know it.” Later, when he has “immobilized” the thug and one of the other tourists picks up the dropped gun, he held it like “an umbrella, a checkbook, a pair of glasses.” Real men know how to handle a gun.
Mr. Ignatieff was a liberal when he allowed himself to be pushed to the front of the line as a leadership candidate for the Canadian government. He was defeated by the conservative Stephen Harper, who I’m pretty sure knows how to hold a gun.