MSNBC’s Chris Hayes got in trouble recently for a comment addressing the use of the word “hero.”
I feel . . . uncomfortable, about the word because it seems to me that it is so rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war. Um, and, I don’t want to obviously desecrate or disrespect the memory of anyone that’s fallen, and obviously there are individual circumstances in which there is genuine, tremendous heroism, you know, hail of gunfire, rescuing fellow soldiers, and things like that. But it seems to me that we marshal this word in a way that is problematic. But maybe I’m wrong about that.
The Economist came to Hayes’s defense, and added another point on the dilution of the term.
Calling “hero” everyone killed in war, no matter the circumstances of their death, not only helps sustain the ethos of martial glory that keeps young men and women signing up to kill and die for the state, no matter the justice of the cause, but also saps the word of meaning, dishonouring the men and women of exceptional courage and valour actually worthy of the title.
Certainly the outrage over Hayes’s comment seems overblown. He was making an intellectual point about the language we use and how it affects our culture and our politics. Regardless of whether or not it’s a good point, the man doesn’t deserve to be ridden out on the rails for venturing it—complete with a qualifying statement that his intentions aren’t disrespectful.
In coming to his defense, though, The Economist seems to be slightly off base. Everyone can interpret the word however they like, but to me, heroes are people who knowingly put themselves in danger for the benefit of others. That’s why our culture considers fire fighters, police officers, and first responders heroes. Certainly soldiers fit into that category. Of course, there are soldiers who go above and beyond the call of duty, but we have special designations for these men and women above the distinction of hero. It’s no different from calling everyone who plays major league baseball a professional athlete, and calling the truly extraordinary All-Stars.
The best criticism of my definition of hero would seem to be the counterexample of a mercenary, who puts his life in danger and benefits others in ways similar to a service member, but who most would agree is not a hero in the same way. Here, I would qualify my definition to say that motives matter. Despite getting paid, soldiers are not motivated by money, but rather by the desire to defend and/or advance the interests of the country they love. I’m also amenable to calling those who inspire others through hard work and perseverance heroes, but the people who would fall into that category almost always expose themselves to some form of risk, even if that risk is not the risk of bodily harm or death. These qualifications seem infinitely more reasonable and less arbitrary than The Economist’s implied requirements that soldiers perform some dramatic act and be fighting for a “just” cause.
While it seems Hayes would agree with The Economist’s strangely strict definition of hero, he brings up a far more interesting point. He is uncomfortable with the word because it is “rhetorically proximate to justifications for more war.” The slight pretentiousness of this phraseology aside, it’s not a false statement. The logical extension of the thought raises the question: is the relationship between the word “hero” and justifications for war sufficiently causal to warrant avoiding its usage, even when it may be apt, and may honor those it is used to describe?
The answer to this, I think, is no. But maybe I’m wrong about that.
It seems perfectly possible to me to simultaneously refer to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice as heroes, and to proclaim that we should avoid sending more willing soldiers into harm’s way. The word hero may be rhetorically proximate to justifications for war, but there is no reason commentators like Hayes can’t make it rhetorically proximate to pleas for peace. If anything, the word—which by our definition conjures thoughts of death and danger—seems better suited to argue against war than for it.
If we really want to honor our fallen soldiers, this is the path we should take. We should not withhold the word hero, which it seems so obvious they have earned, but instead acknowledge their sacrifice while honestly and vigorously arguing for the foreign policy that we deem most in line with the values they fought to advance: freedom, tolerance, and peace. If we do that, and we allow those we disagree with to do the same, we can inch closer to those ideals.
photo credit: thinksquad.net