Essay

LET'S REDEFINE 'HERO'

Once the preserve of the brave or visionary, it’s now used far too liberally

CHARLIE GILIS February 28 2005
Essay

LET'S REDEFINE 'HERO'

Once the preserve of the brave or visionary, it’s now used far too liberally

CHARLIE GILIS February 28 2005

LET'S REDEFINE 'HERO'

Essay

CHARLIE GILIS

DANIEL FRANCIS’S HOUR of greatness comes back to him in flashes—none of them especially pleasant. He’s crawling down the hallway of a burning mobile home, holding his breath, as a desperate mother cries for help outside. “There was a kind of chemical smoke, and it was pretty thick,” he says. “You couldn’t see much.” He remembers reaching out, and finding the elbow of a half-conscious 11-year-old girl who was crouched in the hallway. Tugging her backward, Francis worked his way to the trailer’s rear door,

pushing the girl to safety before tumbling out himself. Moments later, flames engulfed the home.

The night Francis saved Jocelyn Poulette in Millbrook, N.S., is one for the books: bravery and selflessness in the face of obvious danger. Throw in the then-23-year-old’s knee-length cast (he’d broken his leg a couple of weeks earlier while play-wrestling with a pal), and you have something far beyond good citizenship. Francis was recently presented with a Governor General’s Medal of Bravery, Canada’s standard decoration for heroics. He’s loath to blow his own horn, but it seems a pity the whole country wasn’t able to attend his ceremony. We could use a refresher on what heroism really is.

Anyone who watches a supper-hour newscast knows what I mean. That word, once the preserve of the brave or visionary, has somehow become a default term for anyone from dearly missed accident victims to public employees who are, well, doing their jobs. One U.S. college newspaper I read recently declared their institution’s groundskeepers “heroes” for keeping the campus free of litter; blood donors in Canada are “everyday heroes” for performing what is really a

civic duty; all 2,749 innocent victims who died in the World Trade Center towers or on hijacked planes were repeatedly described as heroes following the 9/11 attacks—something I can’t imagine sat well with the families of firefighters trapped in the collapsing buildings. If everyone’s a hero, logic suggests, then no one’s a hero, and our appreciation of the genuine article suffers for it.

The hyperbole can produce absurd results: last year, Toronto’s transit authority

launched a series of posters extolling the “heroic” deeds of its employees, with the laudable goal of engaging a cynical public. The acts, however, turned out to be little more than gestures of common decency— the kind we should be ashamed not to do. One driver (gasp!) stopped her streetcar after seeing a youngster wander into traffic, and picked the child up. Another halted a subway train and had the power rail dis-

connected after spotting a boy on the tracks (instead of, one supposes, running the child down, or watching him electrocute himself). The posters’ attempts at irony only added to the satirical effect: “It’s a bird! It’s a plane!” one proclaimed. “It’s... Deborah and Brad!?”

So how did did this happen? Since when did the least we can do become grounds for

civilization’s most exalted status? Unfulfilled need is one explanation: few occasions any longer warrant the kind of bravery shown by Francis—not in our buttoned-down, seatbelted, gold-star-insured age. If we’re throwing the label around a little, maybe it’s because we want more heroes in our midst, which is hardly a sinful urge. Grief can play a role, too, in cases where the subject has been hurt or killed. It’s a lot more comforting to think of bombing victims as heroes than

hapless pawns in a terrorist war, even if circumstances suggest the latter.

But as George Orwell teaches, misuse of a word breeds doubt about it, and that point struck home for me last fall as I watched television coverage of the death of Lieut.

Chris Saunders, the submariner who succumbed to injuries suffered aboard HMCS Chicoutimi. Numerous reports depicted Saunders as a hero who died in the service of his country.

But it was hard to accept that application of the label at face value. Crew members’ accounts would later suggest Saunders indeed acted selflessly, fighting an electrical fire aboard the ill-fated vessel after suffering severe smoke inhalation. Yet that wasn’t widely known at the time, and conflating Saunders’s death with a battlefield casualty played squarely into the hands of the current federal government’s ends. The Liberals were about to come under heavy criticism for authorizing the cut-rate purchase of Chicoutimi and three other British-made subs, which have been plagued with problems since their delivery. Declaring Saunders a hero underscored the inherent risks of military service, rather than the specific risk of serving aboard leaky, dysfunctional vessels.

More subtle, but just as worrisome, is the willingness of intellectuals to play along— even play a part—in corrupting the hero ideal further. In a 1999 essay prepared for the Dominion Institute, writer and historian ¡¡j

Charlotte Gray called on Canadians to “re-

define” heroism according to national values, emphasizing such qualities as collective strength, quiet competence, respect for the land, humour, creative brilliance and something she calls “self-invention.” Who, if anyone, that would exclude remains unclear (Lili St. Cyr, the famous Montreal stripper of the ’40s and ’50s, counts among Gray’s self-inventors). But Gray does declare old-fashioned bravery passé. “Its only current manifestation,” she says, “is in the

LOGIC suggests that if everyone’s a hero, then no one’s a hero, and our appreciation of the genuine article suffers for it

Once the preserve of the brave or visionary, it’s now used far too liberally

nerves-of-steel takeover duels between the contemporary titans of capitalism.”

As an unapologetic reactionary, I greet this with boos, and the few polls I’ve seen suggest that the rest of the country feels the same way. One taken in 1999 asked Canadians what values they associate most with heroism. Answers varied, but bravery/courage topped the list, with a 26 per cent rating, while honesty, honour and selflessness followed close behind. This suggests a

gut-level affinity for traditional notions of heroism, and gives lie to the stereotypical idea that Canadians are bent on reducing the heroic to the banal.

So why are some lowering the bar? If we know what makes a hero, why not protect the word from misuse, and reserve the honour for its rightful owners? If there’s a sad note to Daniel Francis’s story, after all, it’s that he seems unfazed when the designation is applied to him—as if heroism is

something we all possess, and need not take pride in. “It was just instinct kicking in, the spirit of the moment,” he harrumphs when asked about his actions. “It was something anybody would have done.”

Not true, by a long shot—though the world would be a better place if it were. Heroes, unfortunately, don’t grow on trees, and nothing we say can change that. I?!!

charlie.gillis@macleans.rogers.com