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A minute with Oriana
Reexamining our collective heroes by Oriana Ng

Last Christmas, the Oxford Street lights in London paid tribute to a new set of heroes: the medical workers who saved lives during the pandemic. 2020 was the year where heroes traded capes and tights for scrubs and gloves, shields and weapons for ventilators and vaccines. Heroic action no longer involves stopping an evil perpetrator from extinguishing the planet. It’s going to work. Being in a room with other people.


Re-examining our collective heroes is one good thing that came out of covid-19. At its core, heroism is defined by bravery and self-sacrifice. That’s why the military have always been considered heroes – even Achilles was a warrior. Two reasons account for this: first, a soldier puts their life at risk, which, until last year, wasn’t necessarily the case for a medic. Secondly, society associates heroism with spectacular actions, like combat. The more spectacular the deed, the more heroic it seems.


By definition, what’s spectacular catches the eye. There’s something awfully demonstrative about this, as if heroism needed to be seen. This also translates through what a heroic figure looks like in popular culture: superheroes. A paragon of strength, beauty, intelligence, with the perfect life, the perfect car and amazing superpowers. It’s desirable, exciting but also impossible to be them. So, do these superheroes inspire us to be heroic, or do they excuse us, ordinary humans, for leading ordinary lives?


Feeding heroism in the collective imagination will increase chances that we will act heroically if the opportunity presents itself, according to American psychologists Zeno Franco and Philip Zimbardo. Perhaps that’s why it’s crucial for superheroes to be relatable and, well, human deep down. Hollywood screenwriters conceptualized the hero’s “inner flaw”, a weakness that will be tested throughout the story. Overcoming this inner flaw is what makes the hero truly heroic. Beyond the stunts, six-packs and pyrotechnics, a hero is someone who makes the right choice.


Franco and Zimbardo’s “banality of heroism” concept supports this idea. “We are all potential heroes waiting for a moment in life to perform a heroic deed,” their article asserts. We should conceive heroism as a “universal attribute of human nature” instead of thinking it belongs to an select group of superhumans. Heroism can be nurtured, but it isn’t innate – it’s mostly connected to circumstances and situations. Indeed, Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment suggests the only difference between guards and prisoners was the roles they were assigned.


While 2020 helped us to consider how heroism can be in the average person’s reach, French philosopher Camille Riquier warns us not to fall into the opposite trap. He accuses politicians of over-sensationalizing good and dutiful behavior to appeal to our desire of being heroic, and make us fall in line with their covid-19 policies. There’s nothing heroic about staying at home, he reminds us. Food for thought.


Perhaps we can agree that it doesn’t take someone exceptional to be a hero, but it takes an exceptional act to become one.


What’s a heroic act you witnessed? Who are your heroes?