After a hiatus of some months, during which time I moved house – indeed, states – changed employment conditions and was disconnected from the internet for what seemed an eternity, but was, in fact, only a matter of weeks, it feels good to be finally back in the writing groove.
During my short exile from the internet, I had the opportunity to see television. This may not sound like ground-breaking stuff, but my household has not had a TV for over 15 years, and frankly, judging from the utter tripe I saw in my couple of viewings, we haven’t missed much. However, in the few programs I found vaguely sufferable, one word kept jangling uncomfortably like a single badly tuned instrument in an otherwise well-tuned band: hero.
Like so many great words before it, the word hero seems to have become the latest casualty of a syndrome I’ll call ‘popular overuse’. This is where a word gets used so frequently and applied so liberally that it ceases to have any impact or any real meaning. The word ‘evil’ is another one – once reserved for the truly, unspeakably bad (think Hitler, Stalin, Jack the Ripper) and now used to describe slightly over-boisterous kids or a puppy that wees on the carpet.
Back to hero, though.
“The hero of this dish is undoubtedly the pork!” exclaimed one the Masterchef judges rapturously. Hello? The pork is the hero? Surely if the dish is that good, then the hero is the chef? I only watched a few episodes of Masterchef – probably a good thing – but the word ‘hero’ popped up on a regular basis and always to describe food.
There may be many heroes associated with food, from the farmers who produce high-quality meat, grain, fruits and vegetables; to the cooks who turn the raw materials into works of culinary art; right through to the humanitarian heroes who get basic foodstuffs to people who are starving or have suffered natural disasters. Perhaps I’m missing something, but I fail to see how the food itself can be a hero.
The word descended further into farcical popular overuse syndrome during an episode of The Renovators when a judge enthused that “the chair is the hero of the room!” That was just too much for me. Chairs as heroes, I’m afraid, does not say great things about our society.
When Tina Turner wailed “we don’t need another hero” in the theme song of one of the Mad Max movies, the song described a post-apocalyptic world where survival meant relying on either brute force or rat cunning. As a society are we actually heading towards that world where heroism means nothing and heroes can be chairs?
So where are the heroes? Sports stars are routinely placed on pedestals and worshipped as demigods only to fall from grace when they show that they are human after all. The rich and powerful are idolised for their material success; celebrities are idolised for nothing more than being famous. Given the fleeting nature of sporting, material and celebrity success and the fickleness of the adoring public when the veneer of success falls away to reveal flawed humanity, it seems our standards for heroes has slipped. If our role models can be discarded as soon as they reach a sort of ‘hero use-by date’, we’re not setting our own standards particularly high.
Real heroes are the ones whose achievements endure beyond the celebrity, beyond the headlines and even beyond the life of the hero his or herself. The achievements of Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jnr, Marie Curie, Jacques Cousteau and even our home-grown Mary Mackillop give the individuals an aura of greatness despite – or perhaps because of – their flaws as human beings. In our modern cult of celebrity we expect ‘heroes’ to be perfect, and when they prove otherwise, the gloss suddenly tarnishes and we lose interest. Form and style seem to count for much more than substance.
For the record, my own heroes – or heroines, in fact – are Prof Wangari Maathi, the
founder of the Kenyan Green Belt movement who died only last week, and Prof Vandana Shiva, the Indian physicist and environmental activist. Maathi, the 2004 Nobel Peace laureate, introduced grassroots sustainability to Africa by personally leading the way. Shiva has also forged the path of grassroots activism in the world’s second most populous country by actually getting her hands dirty. This, perhaps is the mark of the true hero: a preparedness not just to point the way, but to take the lead; a true conviction of one’s commitment, based on understanding, knowledge and wisdom, and a willingness to put one’s own life on the line to carry it through.
Right now, as the world enters a crucial phase marked by exploding population pressures, declining capacity to feed our bursting cities, reducing oil production and economic instability, we need heroes more than ever. But if the only ‘heroes’ we can muster by way of the popular overuse syndrome are vacuous celebrities, rich white men and over-endorsed sports stars, perhaps we’d be better off hero-worshipping the pork and the chair after all. They, at least, have substance.