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What's a hero?

Par Susan Neiman
Publié par Clifford Armion le 01/04/2014

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"It’s not an accident that the term role model was invented in 1957 as a substitute, for the first half of the 20th century provided one long assault on the very idea of heroism. The courage once exemplified by military service was first undermined by the changing nature of warfare; it was hard to view the business of cowering in cold, stinking trenches with the same elan that surrounded hand to hand sword-fighting."

Susan Neiman
Susan Neiman (born March 27, 1955) is an American moral philosopher, cultural commentator, and essayist. She studied philosophy at Harvard University, earning her Ph.D. under the direction of John Rawls and Stanley Cavell. She has written extensively on the juncture between Enlightenment moral philosophy, metaphysics, and politics, both for scholarly audiences and the general public. She currently lives in Germany, where she is the Director of the Einstein Forum in Potsdam.


When talking about heroes I’ve often been asked if I could please drop the problematic term ‘hero’ in favor of the term ‘role model’. I cannot, since the word role model is part of the problem: a sterile term that social scientists invented in 1957, which simply doesn’t work the way the word heroes does: to inspire, to challenge, to light fires for (and under) people of whatever age who need to be reminded that there is more to their lives than they are told to be resigned to. The word ‘Held’ raises hackles in Germany, but is hardly confined to it: when attempting to use it in a BBC discussion I was attacked by an interlocutor who justified her refusal to use the old-fashioned word ‘hero’ because “Hitler and Stalin were heroes.”

It’s remarkable how everyone who introduces this point seems to think they discovered it. Quite so: Once you think about heroes you must think about false heroes and fake heroes and misguided heroes and a whole host of things in between. But just like the phrase “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, the reflection that Hitler and Stalin were, even remain, heroes for many, is a place to start thinking about heroes – not the place to stop.

It’s not an accident that the term role model was invented in 1957 as a substitute, for the first half of the 20th century provided one long assault on the very idea of heroism. The courage once exemplified by military service was first undermined by the changing nature of warfare; it was hard to view the business of cowering in cold, stinking trenches with the same elan that surrounded hand to hand sword-fighting. A few decades later, every military exploit became questionable in view of atrocities committed by soldiers slaughtering civilians in the name of causes we came to abhor. New sciences of psychology revealed common, often infantile motives behind actions once deemed noble – giving us at least the illusion of intimacy possessed by the valet to whom, says the adage, no man is a hero. All that, plus the suspicion that heroes are vaguely undemocratic, combined to discredit the word ‘hero’.

Seen through the right lenses any hero can be unmasked, and the proverb no man is a hero to his valet was already proverbial in the seventeenth century. This problem was already confronted by Hegel. “No man is a hero to his valet; not, however, because the man is not a hero, but because the valet is - a valet.” The valet's view of the world is crude and common, and he will turn up every stone to confirm it. Petty and ungenerous people seek pettiness and parsimony; generous souls will seek their own kind.

Of course claims and competitions to be the greatest hero were often abused as cover for acts that were anything but honorable. What I’m interested in now is not the truth of claims to heroism but their form. Think about contemporary discussions, where the common coin is victimhood: individuals and groups compete for recognition not on the basis of what they have done, but what they have suffered. The limiting case of such competition is probably one Benjamin Wilkomirski, a Swiss writer who was eventually unmasked for inventing a childhood in a concentration camp. But though it may have become paradigmatic, the Holocaust was not initially at the forefront of the trend to compete over comparative suffering. For two decades after WWII ended, Holocaust survivors were treated as shameful; if any victims commanded attention, it was the victims of colonialism. Franz Fanon preceded Elie Wiesel. Jewish focus on the Holocaust, both in Israel and elsewhere, began relatively late; it’s hard to find before the 1970s. But it became the non plus ultra of identity in the age of identity politics, with increasing competition among peoples to prove they were just as miserable victims as anyone else. Often the contest comes close to hysteria in Eastern and Central Europe, where nations who suffered under Stalinism are demanding equal treatment for their wounds. Current political debates in Europe about whether Communist and fascist oppression were similar are driven by many agendas: some are attempts to use anticommunism in furthering neoliberal economic agendas, others, especially in the Baltics, have been used to cover up widespread wartime complicity with Nazi crimes. Their form, however, always depends on the claim that my pain is worse than yours. I once heard the Ukrainian foreign minister declare “We Ukrainians understand the Jews very well, because of our own suffering in the last century. In just one of the unnecessary famines of the 1930s, the Ukraine lost seven million of its citizens.” Seven million to six million, and that in one year! Was he suggesting we ought to throw in the towel, in the face of the score, and recognize that the Ukraine had won?

Won what? The struggle for recognition that Hegel saw as captured by the attempt to overcome your enemy – first through battle, later through production – has been replaced. Recognition is no longer provided by doing more than another, but by enduring more than another. It’s a reversal that is fatal for any concept of political morality, because it depends on the assumption that what counts is not what you do in the world, but what the world does to you.

Now initially, the impulse to turn from heroes to victims was a progressive one. History had been the story of the victors, and the voices of the victims went notoriously unheard. To turn the tables and insist that the victims’ stories enter the narrative was just a part of righting old wrongs. If victims’ stories have claims on our attention, they have claims on our sympathies and our systems of justice. Contemporary political culture is right to insist that we give equal hearing to accounts of those whom earlier ages left forgotten. As an alternative to world-views in which the survivor of a massacre by Roman legions or Mongol hordes expected nothing more than a lapidary "Shit happens", it's a definite step towards progress. When slaves began to write their memoirs, they took steps towards subjectivity and won recognition – and slowly but certainly, recognition’s rewards.

So the movement to recognize the victims of slavery and slaughter and colonialism was made with the best of intentions. It was part of a process of acknowledging that might and right often fail to coincide, that very bad things happen to all sorts of people, and that even when we cannot change that we are bound to record it. Victimhood should be a source of legitimation for claims to restitution, however complicated it may be to decide whose claims end where. Yet in reevaluating the place of the victim in history, something profoundly unhealthy took place. Something is wrong when legitimacy is conferred by what the world did to you – without regard for what you did in the world. Undergoing suffering isn't a virtue at all, and it's unlikely to create any. Virtue is not about what happens to us, but about what we do with it. If we view victimhood itself as a source of legitimacy, we are on the way to untying legitimacy from virtue altogether.

I propose we restrain our attachment to victims and return to an older model, where your claims to legitimacy are focused on what you've done to the world, not what the world did to you. This wouldn't return the victims to the ash-heap of history, but it would bring the hero back to center stage. One of the first heroic virtues is generosity, as well as a certain humility that recognizes the contingency that plays a role in our lives. (There but for fortune could any of us go.) These should allow us to honor caring for victims as a virtue - without suggesting that being a victim is one as well.

Cette ressource a été publiée dans le cadre de la deuxième saison du festival "Mode d'emploi", organisé par la Villa Gillet, qui s'est déroulé du 12 au 24 novembre 2013.


Pour citer cette ressource :

Susan Neiman, "What's a hero?", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), avril 2014. Consulté le 23/05/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/litterature/entretiens-et-textes-inedits/what-s-a-hero-

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  • Susan Neiman
  • héros
  • modèle
  • victime
  • postmoderne