We need more humans, not more heroes

Exaggerated by the growing celebrity culture of social change, hero worship is on the rise. In the process we risk rendering ourselves perpetually mediocre. 

Robert Holtom
23 July 2014

Credit: All rights reserved.

Once upon a time, James Lovelock was a hero. In 2007 Time Magazine lauded him for his work on the Gaia Hypothesis, which described the earth and its inhabitants as a self-regulating system that maintains the conditions for all life. He also predicted extreme rises in atmospheric temperature during the 21st century.

Lovelock’s theories foresaw the mass extinction of humanity as a result of catastrophic climate change, but now he says that his predictions were “alarmist,” so designing public policy around hypothetical future temperatures makes no sense. Despite all the evidence, the large-scale destruction of the planet’s ecosystems is not a product of human industrialization, he concludes, it’s “no more than the constructive chaos that always attends the installation of a new infrastructure.”  

This new infrastructure, claims Lovelock, will be geared to living comfortably in mega-cities, rather than trying to “save the Earth.” Therefore, he recommends that the UK should strengthen its defenses and retreat into sustainable isolation. In the process, the environmental hero has become much more conservative, someone who wants others to adopt a similar pessimism and stop asking challenging questions. It’s shocking to see Lovelock taking such a laissez faire approach to ecocide: the large-scale destruction of the earth and its human and non-human inhabitants.

No wonder some people might feel betrayed, but that’s partly because Lovelock had been turned into a guru, a prophet for our times, someone in whose light everyone could bask - a position that made it easier to accept his doctrines without asking hard questions about his thinking. Lovelock’s expertise is primarily in chemistry and earth science, not sociology and economics, so the personal and political implications of the Gaia hypothesis – and of his new suggestions about mega-cities – haven’t been interrogated. 

Heroes, just like the rest of us, can be misguided, but the implications are so much greater. They can inspire, but they can also lead social movements in the wrong direction. Heroes can motivate, but hero-worship takes energy and attention away from the hard realities of collective action. Preventing large-scale social, ecological and economic degradation requires all of us to act and place less faith in the celebrities of the struggle.

Calling anyone a hero creates a lens through which they and their teachings are viewed. We see their ‘greatness’ and admire them for the ‘great’ things that they do, but we ignore their failings, their inaccuracies and their misbehavior. We edit out the bits of information about them that we do not want to hear, and paste the rest into a hero’s quest-type narrative that places them on a pedestal. They become images on a screen rather than real people, less human and therefore less authentic. And in the process they become less useful as interlocutors or movement-builders because there’s too much distance between them and the realities of everybody else.

These traits are exaggerated by the culture of celebrity that consumes increasing parts of the struggle for social change. Images of heroes and heroism can be edited and manipulated more easily in this culture. The value of the individual change-maker is promoted over the necessity of mass action. Superficial ideas are celebrated and complexity is banished. Hero worship increasingly becomes the norm.

The exemplar of these trends is TED, the stylish idea-spreading organisation that focuses on technology, entertainment and design. TED presents the public with glossy, well-rehearsed talks that promise so much: transcending pain, finding more personal satisfaction, and inventing the next ‘silver bullet’ for deep-rooted social problems, all in one seductive mix. This is the ‘fast food’ of social transformation, easily consumed but a swiftly passing pleasure.

TED talks encourage the image of the individualized hero by presenting one speaker as the focus of attention rather than a team or a movement, as if all their ideas and achievements were the product of their own doing rather than a myriad of other factors and contributors.

Take, for example, Brené Brown’s brilliant TED talk on the power of vulnerability. Brown has a PhD in social work and talks of her love for quantification, and how she tried to study emotions like love and shame by enumerating them and putting them into boxes. She tells the audience how this led to a psychological and emotional breakdown when she realized there was more to human experience than statistics, and how she coped with this breakdown by opening up to the highs and lows of life.

It’s a great talk, but Brown is presented as a guru who touts her own unique contribution to the self-help world. This makes her message sound temptingly simple, even though she admits it took at least a year of therapy after her breakdown before she was ready to “embrace vulnerability.” But here the task is made to sound easy - to be fitted in somewhere between breakfast and cleaning your teeth. Little is said of the complex and powerful forces that make deep, human connection so difficult in contemporary societies: the ubiquitous presence of marketing, for example, that’s designed to make us feel insecure, and the social atomization that makes interacting with others so difficult.

The format of the talk reinforces the relationship of a preacher to their congregation. Brown speaks at people for twenty minutes, unopposed and unquestioned, and the audience sits and watches, as people so often do in the classroom, in front of the television or the boss at work. Their roles are reduced to those of actors or consumers instead of active participants and co-creators. Furthermore, Brown must follow the TED commandments: ‘thou shalt dream a great dream, or show forth a wondrous new thing.’ So, it’s got to be big, and it’s got to be bold, and it’s got to impress. No ‘small’ stories please.

Admittedly, ‘thou shalt not flaunt thine ego, be vulnerable or speak of thy failure’ comes a little further down the list. Failures, if they are admitted to at all, are presented as part of a narrative that is always and ultimately successful. This is a prerequisite for being invited to speak at TED, but it’s a hopelessly-inaccurate description of what it’s like to work for transformation, and that’s the most important problem with this kind of hero worship: it takes away from our own potential as agents of deep-rooted social change.

Looking for heroes is understandable. In a world of moral ambiguities and suffering, most people want figures they can look up to and emulate. We need such figures to give meaning and inspiration to our lives, or so we often think. But in doing so we risk rendering ourselves perpetually mediocre, incapable of acts of ‘heroism’ however large or small they might appear. We cast ourselves as mere bit-part players in the far grander lives of other characters. However, none of us are bit-part players - we are all capable of heroism.

To encourage these more expansive and inclusive feelings I don’t want patronizing platitudes and stories of endless success. I want real human beings who are capable of incredible acts of bravery, intelligence, and boldness - and who can be irritating, thoughtless, and annoying. People who tell bad jokes, make mistakes and occasionally fart in public. Human beings who fail a lot, but keep going. Authentic people I can relate to, because that gives me the strength and confidence to be heroic myself. I want stories that show the struggles, hardship, teamwork and tears of striving to create positive change, as well as the laughter, celebrations and triumphs. I want a real story, not an airbrushed fantasy of assumptions and generalities.

Lovelock and Brown are experts in their fields but they’re not heroes, just people who are doing what they believe is right. Heroes inhabit fictional worlds with tightly structured narratives of beginnings, middles and ends; well paced plot devices and limited character traits. But social transformation is not a carefully composed story, neither black nor white but always told in shades of grey, whether the story is one of climate change or vulnerability or any of the other myriad of complex and hard-fought issues that occupy our imaginations. To make real progress, those are the stories we need to hear and participate in creating.

Ultimately, heroes are fictitious; humans are not. Let’s keep it that way.

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