Friday, January 18, 2008

Bark: The Hero Label

If you're in the UK, it won't have escaped your notice that there was a wee incident down at Heathrow yesterday.

My immediate, flippant, reaction was "Whoops. That's not going to look good on his performance review at the end of the year." My second, more considered, reaction was that the pilot actually did really well to get the plane down in one piece. A complete power failure (whether it was caused by electronics or birdstrike, which seem most likely in this case - my guess would be electronics failure) in the last few seconds of final approach for landing must be every pilot's nightmare. I really want to read the transcript of the cockpit voice recorder, because I bet it'll be fascinating to see just how long the crew had before landing when the problem occurred.

Predictably, everyone's leapt to label the flight crew as "heroes", which while entirely understandable - and arguably even applicable in this case - annoys the hell out of me. "Hero" must be the second-most misapplied and overused word in the English language after "genius".

To begin with, I'm really not keen on the tendency to pigeonhole and put labels on everything, but especially so when it come to people, mainly because it denigrates the actual meaning of words. The original meaning of "hero" comes from mythology: the protagonist of a story, often imbued with special powers or divine heritage, usually characterised with exceptional ability or bravery. From this, we get the words "heroic" and "heroism" - the manifestation of these qualities appearing in everyday actions and normal people. You can do something heroic, but that in itself does not make you a "hero" - not in the traditional sense of the word, at any rate.

The pilot's first instinct and priority is obviously to try and safeguard his passengers, but despite the unquestionably high level of skill and bravery he showed in getting the plane down without it bursting into a huge ball of flame, he'd probably be the first to admit that it wasn't an entirely selfless act - his life was at stake as well - he was just fortunate enough to be in the position where he could do something about the predicament the plane was in. That doesn't belittle the achievement of having his passengers not actually think the plane was in trouble at all (some passengers have been quoted as thinking it was simply a very rough landing), it just doesn't make him a hero. The pilot did his job - did what was required of him and what he'd been trained to do in that situation, nothing more. He did it brilliantly, and should be respected for that, but I don't think the label "hero" fits. (Though I do give him mad props for being in a plane crash and then going for a curry afterwards, as if it were all in a day's work.)

A hero is someone who risks their life when it's not already at stake: when the option of doing nothing wouldn't hurt them, but when taking action could. A hero is someone who goes beyond the normal call of their duties to save or defend people incapable of saving themselves. Somewhere this nuance has been lost and diluted down to the point where a "hero" is anyone who does something remotely out of the ordinary. And I can't help thinking that this is worrying.

I understand the desire for people to look for heroes or other people to put their admiration and respect in - there are precious few enough of them already, these days - but as a society we seem to have forgotten that "exceptional" or "special" means that by definition very few people can be exceptional. If everyone were special, specialness would be normal.

What's my point? Well, basically this: if you're going to categorise or apply labels to everything, don't put cubic zirconia in boxes meant for diamonds...
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