FMA 1202F Seminar 4

Social Contexts: Fear and Desire


To say that the hero is constructed by society is to say that s/he takes on the complex forms of society’s impulses: not just the surface/positive needs (a figure to admire, an ideal type, a myth of protection), but also darker and deeper psychological/emotional impulses.  Unless we see only the positive/protective aspects of the hero (which is hard to do – and getting harder all the time), then we may well have to posit a darker dimension of human nature and society, and see how the construction of the hero (and the related constructions of the villain, and victims, threats, etc) help us explain and understand these.  To do so, we have to rely on some kind of hidden/unseen dimension in human nature, beyond the merely material and physical, and perhaps even beyond the more simplistically psychological (e.g. Maslov’s needs or cause-effect rational choice).  We would have to try to understand the impulses behind such social phenomena as violence, dark sexuality, aberration, mass destruction, hatred, etc.  After all, what good is a hero (and hero-theory) if we pointedly avoid talking about these things which we see around us in society?


For this seminar, we will focus on “real” heroes (from public life, society) rather than fictional ones (except where the fictional accounts help to construct the heroism of the real-life hero – e.g. Mandela and the South African rugby team in Invictus).   But we will probably find that the tools of hero-analysis in film and literature will actually prove very useful for hero-analysis in public life too.


Social Threats, Society’s Heroes

Working empirically (from the major events and phenomena of our world today), we can extrapolate some of the main stress points of our society (not an exhaustive list – feel free to add to it):

1.   War, invasion, tyranny, the destruction of our way of life (the Middle East, Afghanistan, Singapore or Nanjing in WWII, London riots)

2.   Apocalypse, environmental crises (Fukushima, Chernobyl, tsunamis)

3.   Violent crime/criminals/terrorism/tribal warfare (Russian Mafia, Al Qaeda, gang warfare)

4.   Disease/epidemics (SARS, Ebola)

5.   Torture and torment (human trafficking, child prostitution, kidnappers)

6.   Accidents and disasters (plane crashes, train wrecks, building collapses)

7.   The supernatural (ghosts, hauntings, monsters, anything unexplained by natural phenomena)

8.   Corruption, abusive authority, the decay of order (local government in India and China, bad cops, mistaken arrests/shootings)

9.   Xenophobia, fear of aliens/migrants/others (illegal immigration, race/cultural tensions, China women in Singapore, curry wars)

10.   Economic crisis, unemployment, rampant inflation (sub-prime crisis, Enron)

11.   The web (identity theft, cyber bullying, cyber terrorism)


Looking at the list, and the many other items we can add to it just extrapolating from periodic events in contemporary society, reminds us that modern progress certainly does not mean more safety.  The added complexity, contiguity and speed of modern life mean that almost any aspect of our lives can be potentially threatening, a cause of anxieties.  The proof of this is in the way we have constructed heroes to answer these actual and potential threats:


1.   Hero soldiers, resistance workers and protectors (Lim Boh Seng, Charles De Gaulle, Oskar Schindler, William Wallace)

2.   Environmental crusaders and rescuers (the Fukushima clean-up workers, Greenpeace warriors)

3.   Vigilante heroes, super cops (Frank Serpico, Gordon Murphy, Curtis Sliwa and the Guardian Angels)

4.   Top researchers and epidemiologists (Ebola hero Matthew Lokwiya; SARS hero Alexandre Chao)

5.   Social workers, NGO leaders, women’s/children’s crusaders (Mother Theresa, Medicins sans Frontiers)

6.   Hero rescue workers, hero pilots (Chesley Sullenberger)

7.   Ghostbusters, supernatural warriors (Exorcists like Father William S. Bowdern, mediums)

8.   Anti-corruption crusaders, ordinary people who stand up to corrupt authorities (Anna Hazare)

9.   Community leaders and individuals championing and caring for migrant workers; or at the other extreme, vigilantes who police them (Cesar Estrada Chavez)

10.   “Sound” investors and champions of moderation and sound value (Warren Buffet; Alan Greenspan)

11.   Anti-hacking software developers/champions, net crusaders (e.g. against child pornography, cyber-bullying) (cybercrime laywer and crusader Parry Aftab; Megan Meier Foundation’s Tina Meier).


But it is obviously not enough to be involved in some way “against” these dangers and threats – after all, each one of us resists these things in our own lives and for our own sakes (am I a cyber-hero just because I take precautions not to leak my password to a criminal?).  To be a real-life hero, certain factors must also be in place (not just the existence of daily fears/threats) – i.e. this is how you create a real-life hero in our society:

1.   Selfless – it must be done for someone else, not just for self-interest or self-preservation (the principle of sacrifice)

2.   Principle of scale – there must be some degree of magnitude in the task, the danger or sacrifice endured, the good accomplished.  Saving someone from getting a few drops of rain on them doesn’t qualify, even though it is selfless.

3.   Principle of rarity – it must be something uncommon, out of the ordinary.  To return someone’s wallet is probably too common to warrant any attention; to return an unlocked bag filled with $1 million is not common and may qualify for heroism, certainly for attention.

4.   Publicity – it must be seen, publicised, made known to many, otherwise it cannot be feted as heroism no matter how heroic it might be

5.   Narrative – it must have a good “heroic” story-line, to capture people’s imagination and be oft-repeated.  Aristotelian principles (a coherent beginning-middle-end, a hero greater than average, etc) seem to work well.  Nobody wants to hear about someone who once did a heroic thing, but then did something bad, and then heroic again, and then bad – violates the basic Aristotelian unity of narrative.

6.   Charisma: This is not an absolutely essential factor, but it plays a part – it helps if certain aspects of “charisma” are in place (I use the term the way anthropologists like Clifford Geertz use it) – i.e. displays and signs which are calculated to enhance imagination.  E.g. Height, good looks, a certain posture or position – not necessarily power-related, but just suited to imaginative enhancement and sympathetic engagement.  It is easy to identify with or feel for a good-looking hero, or even a vulnerable-looking one; but hard to identify with or feel for an ugly, mean-looking, or bland hero.

7.   Mnemonics: memory factors also contribute (at least slightly) to the stature of the hero.  Would you long remember a hero with the name “John Smith” or “Lee Chin Teck”?  In contrast, unusual traits/names help to prolong the memory of the hero: the “grandma hero,” “Braveheart,” “Mahatma”


Super-Heroes: The Unconscious of Heroism

So far we have been talking about everyday life and everyday heroism – it is possible to construct certain rules or codes of such heroes, but this doesn’t seem to complete the discussion or exhaust the topic of heroism.  Are there heroes who don’t (comfortably) fit into these roles and templates, who don’t exhibit (all or most of) these qualities, and yet are clearly heroic?   Are there different statures/ranks of heroes – are there acts of heroism that live much longer in memory than others, are there certain heroes (or heroic feats) who are mentioned with a special degree of awe?  If so, what characterises those heroes/feats? 


We may be veering back into the realm of myth and fiction here, and away from everyday heroes – but that may be inevitable.  There are many everyday heroes, more than enough to write books and make films about, but most of them don’t get books written or films made about them; instead we invent superheroes, return to myths and demigods, invent special challenges/threats just in order to invent fictional heroes to solve them.  For example, there are many real ecological threats facing us: Tsunamis, greenhouse effect etc.  Yet it is not easy to imagine a durable hero who solves these problems for us.  We have to exaggerate the threat, in the form of things like a global seismic event that can only be prevented by a special device placed at the earth’s core; or an end-of-world kind of climate event; or a comet on direct collision course with the earth; before we can imagine a truly heroic story/solution.  (These scenarios are familiar from movies like Armageddon; The Day After Tomorrow; Sunshine; and others).


In other words, we have a basic human propensity to aggrandise, blow up, mythologise heroes.  Real-life heroes, while providing everyday heroic solutions to real-life threats, don’t seem to be enough for us.  Why do we put up statues for human heroes long after they are dead (e.g. the statue and monument for William Wallace in Stirling) – is it an attempt to prolong the life, to symbolically deny the death, of the hero?  Is it because we want or need him to be somehow more-than-human?  Or that what is really heroic about him is an eternal factor/quality (more than just human courage and bravery)?  Why is it that heroes get emulated, admired and followed long after their death (e.g. Hitler, sad to say a hero to some; or Catholic saints, who pass from flesh-and-blood to eternal sainthood, e.g. Pope John Paul II who is the process of becoming a saint)?  Why is it some people have a hard time even accepting that their flesh-and-blood heroes are dead (e.g. Elvis?)


There seems to be in mankind a deeper level of need, corresponding to a deeper level of fear, and thus creating heroes who are pointedly greater than human.  This may be the last, and possibly the most telling, feature of heroism – it must concern an agent or action seemingly super-human, not just rare but unparalleled/singular, which only this hero could have done.  We seem to be returning to the era of demigods, manifest destiny, arête (one sign of this is that we never get tired of myths and legends, we do remakes and give them new life; ditto magic, the supernatural, spiritual etc) – all this despite our rationality, technology, even cynicism and the decline of religion.  (This last point is worth noting: is there a close but inverse relationship between modernity’s decline of faith in religion, and the media industry of superheroes?  i.e. the more “faithless” we become, the more we consume stories of superheroes almost in lieu of religion and gods?)


Adapting Frye’s notions of mythic displacement, we might even argue that real-life heroes are just displaced version of primal/mythic heroes: i.e. we create heroes out of everyday situations because of our primal need for heroes; but by that token, everyday heroes cannot really fulfil all our primal needs (hence the continual replacement of real-life heroes with others, and the continual creation of mythic superheroes).


In which case, it might make more sense, not to ignore everyday heroes (it seems important to understand what they must do to become heroes in our eyes – what factors they fulfil in order to become heroes), but also to organise them according to the deeper primal fears and desires from which they stem, and which they (only partially) fulfil.  (We can cross-check these primal fears and desires from different sources – not just the everyday heroes/situations that fit into these categories, but our continuing/abiding fears and desires, from earliest times to the present day, from demigods to superheroes):


What the hero is (at this deeper, mythic level):

1.   Someone greater than me at a fundamental level – not just bigger and more powerful, but great enough to offer reassurance against the primary fears of life (violence, danger, death, loss of loved ones, a world-ending crisis).  i.e a bearer of greater hope, for me and for humanity

2.   Super-human, but not invulnerable – the combination of powerfulness and vulnerability seems to be crucial.  A hero who is invulnerable (if we can even imagine such a thing) would be too remote from us to serve as our hero – there would be no morality, no cost, in a hero who did things simply because s/he cannot be hurt.  Yet a too-vulnerable hero doesn’t seem to fulfil our criterion of someone fundamentally greater than me/mankind.  This combination of super-human-but-vulnerable seems to play a role in affirming humanity – the centrality and importance of man in the larger scheme of things, that man is not just another creature in a mechanical universe, but is special in terms of his place, perspective, feelings/experiences.  The hero plays an important part in humanizing the greater forces/powers of the universe.

3.   Watchfulness, nick-of-timeliness, an agent of destiny – someone who does not just big things, but does it at just the right time.  An agent of the moment – who fits and answers a particular call at a particular time.  (We can test it thus: if Superman were to defeat Lex Luthor when Lex was not doing anything particularly harmful or momentous – but being Lex, had the potential to do so at some other time – would that victory still be the victory of a superhero?  The answer is probably no – there needs to be a particularly momentousness and timeliness about the superhero’s actions.

4.   Morality/goodness: not just that the superhero’s actions benefit me and mankind, but there also has to be a certain intentionality about it, a good motive.  If Superman unthinkingly flew through the sky and accidentally knocked aside a comet that would otherwise destroy the earth, that’s not the action of a superhero – we have to be assured that he intended it, that he cares for mankind.

5.   Greater Knowledge, of what is “beyond” human existence: although perhaps not as obvious or foregrounded than the other attributes, it does seem quite essential to the nature of the hero as well.  In the case of some heroes (Prometheus, Oedipus, Odysseus, and all the other demi-gods), knowingness (being smarter, more closely associated with hidden knowledge) is an obvious and central characteristic.  In others, it is manifested in underworld journeys, alien origins, hidden secrets, etc.  Again, to test this, it is sufficient to ask: would a bimbo or dumb jock (however awesome in strength and ability) be a true hero?  Would a merely narrowly specialised professional (an accountant, a mechanic), if s/he had no other dimension of knowledge?  (Note that Holmes, in many ways an utter professional, is by no means narrowly specialised – his realm of expertise is actually no less than all of human nature, its character, behaviour, quirks, practices, etc.  So in many ways he fulfils the criterion of “greater knowledge” in the hero.


There may be some smaller features of the hero that derive or follow from the above (for example, it seems to me that most if not all heroes are non-sexualised.  If they are seen in sexual episodes, these are precisely episodic and inconsequential – there cannot be anything abiding or meaningful or constitutive about their sexual identity.  But this is already implicit or explicit in the greater hope, or momentfulness, of the hero – the hero is meant for greater things than baser physical functions or emotional attachments).  We can also see all the types of real-life heroes and their characteristics as steming from – as being minor copies of – these 5 essential/deep qualities: e.g.


1.   hero soldier/cops and great athletes exhibit (some measure of) deep characteristic no. 1, greatness and hope.

2.   social workers, NGO heroes, exhibit number 2 – they affirm humanity

3.   hero pilots, rescue workers exhibit something of number 3 – they do the right thing, but crucially at the right time

4.   teachers, spiritual leaders, the Warren Buffett crusaders, anti-corruption crusader, exhibit something of the moral factor

5.   hero doctors, researchers, Einsteins, mediums or ghostbusters exhibit the 5th factor – knowledge of something beyond the human realm. 


As we have seen, each of the real-life heroes falls short of that factor in some ways, each is obviously a very imperfect or inadequate representative of that factor, so much so that it may be a bit of a stretch to see the real-life hero as embodying that factor (which is why I’ve used the qualifiers “some measure of,” or “minor copy”).  For characteristic number 1 (greatness and hope), it is doubtful if any human being can ever inspire us at the level of greatness we seem to need: a brave soldier or cop is only a measurable or imaginable degree braver than the average person, just like a super athlete is only measurably stronger than average (even if that measure is 2 times, or 3 times).  Somebody else will come along, in time, to replicate the feat of a solder-hero or great athlete; to be truly heroic, we want to see something that inspires us because it is almost or practically irreplicable. 


Similarly for all the other factors: social workers and NGOs may affirm our humanity, but they are very closely associated with that humanity, there is little sense of the superhuman about them (or rather they are much more closely associated with our humanity than with anything superhuman).  Hero pilots etc exhibit good timeliness, but can only do it once in their lives – they do not have that heroic sense of being called/chosen explicitly to do timely and needful things, again and again.  Moral leaders have feet of clay, they often fall short in some other moral aspect of their lives (spiritual leaders with private jets?).  And hero doctors, researchers or ghostbusters only show glimpses of knowledge “beyond” the human, hardly real/concerted knowledge.


And yet the point is that human society quickly looks to elevate and celebrate such real-life heroes – even as we note their shortcomings, try very hard to mythologise them (with statues, exaggerated accounts of their deeds, songs, etc), and also come down very hard on them if/when they fall (the viciousness with which fake or flawed heroes are attacked, is a measure of our desperation to make them into superheroes in the first place).


The 5 fundamental/deep qualities of superheroes do seem to be abiding ones, though, even if we cannot often/ever find good examples in real life.  Perhaps they are abiding (despite how much our culture and society change over time) because these aspects of our humanity do not change (much).  In the final analysis, we still have fundamental questions about what we are doing on earth, how to make the most of our short/fragile/vulnerable lives, what lies beyond, what fateful or defining moments shape us – and who is the good hero who can help us answer and negotiate through these questions and issues.