These days, so many words seem devoid of substantive meaning. Sure, one can consult authorities such as the Oxford English Dictionary and find that almost every word has more than one meaning. Awful means “full of awe” or “a terrible thing.”
Still, in this age of 24/7 news cycles and a sea of social media, words seem to have little or no real meaning at all. To be sure, meaning evolves, shifts, and changes. Sign, signifier, and referent can be slippery things.
I proceed from the premise that meaning is negotiated through discursive interactions, dialogues, and is a process of recollection from within the soul. If the saying is true that out of the abundance of the soul, the mouth speaks, then it seems humans are rapidly becoming soulless.
The word I have in mind is hero. What does it mean to be a hero and, by extension, who can be a hero? Sometimes it seems that being a hero is a label akin to the participation trophy awarded to everyone simply for showing up.
A hero often seems little more than someone who does the work others deem marginal or risky in some way. In this way, in an all volunteer military, everyone and anyone who joins up and serves is a hero. (As a military veteran I am uneasy with that idea.)
Similar rhetorics of the hero arise about those who work in law enforcement. But, is it heroic to simply do ones job? Is it heroic simply to be one’s self in the world or to be different from the norm? What differences count as heroic or as acts of heroism?
I’ve been mulling the question over and over in my mind since the death of a white police officer here in Memphis, TN. Race and gender seem to be important in determining which lives and which actions are characterized as heroic. These determinations seem to be linked to values that reinforce the dominant cultural paradigm.
Tragically, a young man was gunned down doing his job as a Police Officer in Memphis not so long ago. I was struck by how quickly he was characterized as not just a victim, not just courageous, but as a hero.
Of course, a great deal of this coronating rhetoric was in response to the Black Lives Matters movement, which some claim has made the work of law enforcement personnel more difficult and dangerous. It was interesting to watch how the various media outlets constructed, presented, and re-presented the life of the slain officer. His life loomed as large as the tale of John Henry.
From the womb, this man came forth to do good things in the world and to give his life as a ransom for many. In his self-sacrificial living, he remained unmarried. He served with distinction as a Marine. Then, he continued in public service as a police officer in Memphis.
Indeed, these are not trivial undertakings and they are admirable. Yet, something about the whole thing made me as uneasy as the quick and easy demonization of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Sandra Bland whose very ontology, very being, made them unworthy of sympathy or praise.
As I listened and considered the words about the white, male officer, I thought about the previous line of duty death in Memphis almost 3 years before. That death was of a black, female officer and mother of four. She died while serving a warrant.
She was characterized as courageous and brave, but she never quite rose rhetorically to the level of a hero. The same media outlets were stunned. They seemed to stumble on the fact that she was a woman and, in less obvert ways, on the fact that she was a divorced mother of four.
She received the honors due someone killed in the line of duty. Yet, her valor seems less complete than that of her white, male colleague. Thus continues that calculus about the limit of X as X approaches some point, but never intersects with or becomes one with that point.
As a child, I knew there was something askew in the way stories of cowboys and Indians played out. Even in the Lone Ranger, the Indian could only be a valiant sidekick to the heroic Lone Ranger. As I paid attention to other stories, I was struck by other valiant sidekicks, usually of color, who support heroic figures, usually white and male.
I worry at times that certain words have been stripped of substantive meaning. Yet, the word hero and idea of a hero will continue to have substance and value in most human contexts. Heroes are often understood as ordinary people behaving with exceptional coolness, sagacity, and character in a moment of crisis.
For example, Lydia Maria Child in her 1865 book, The Freedman’s Book, wrote to provide role models for newly emancipated Black men and women. She chose Toussaint L’Ouverture, Frederick Douglass, and Madison Washington as men whose characters made them worthy of emulation, and whose deeds made them worthy of notice.
Humans need heroes, and villains, to which to appeal as well as to support the foundational myths of communities and corporate identities. The need for supporting characters necessarily means that the idea of a hero is political and value-laden. This means that the lives of the subaltern, no matter how valiant, in the dominant paradigm, will rarely, if ever, be truly celebrated or regarded as heroic. This is an awful reality.