Monday, April 27, 2015

The Insidious Dangers of Hero Worship

There’s a certain genre of journalism—maybe it’s more a style than a genre, actually—that my father refers to contemptuously as “hero worship.” The omniscient Internet defines hero worship as “excessive admiration for someone” or the “foolish or excessive adulation for an individual.”

Ever since my dad identified this phenomenon to me, I see it everywhere. For example, just today, Slate has an article about a lawyer who “transformed American society.” The New Yorker has a piece about “the man who broke the music business.” Jezebel has a chat with a "style icon.” The opposite side of the coin could be called “hero destruction,” in which the media gleefully celebrates the downfall of an individual, declaring someone to be “totally screwed,” as Salon did today, for example.

And that’s just today.

The problem is not that these things aren’t true, necessarily.  The problem is that these narratives celebrate and elevate individual accomplishments and failures over the collective set of circumstances, people, and places that generated them. All of those details are usually too dry, messy, boring, and involved to go into. So they don’t make for a good story.

It’s also distinctly American to lionize the individual. Americans are raised to believe that everything we achieve (or don't) is because of our individual virtues or deficits, when in all likelihood, everything we do or don’t achieve is really because of the complicated interplay between our genetics, our environment, the people and places we encounter there, and—most of all—sheer dumb luck and timing. 
So it's not particularly useful or informative to read an obsequious 500-word public worship piece while drinking another disposable cup of coffee.

Hero worship is delusional, because of course, no one person achieves any measure of success or failure in a vacuum. We are all the sum of our collective parts. It’s also unsustainable, because now more than ever, the world needs the spotlight removed from individual awesomeness or awfulness and re-trained on our collective responsibilities: to conserve water; to keep polio from coming back; to fight systemic poverty and injustice; to hold our governments accountable to citizens not corporations, and so forth. 

It takes heroism to do those things, but real heroism is usually found in a collective effort of some kind:  one which recognizes that each of us has a part to play, and that heroes are for comic books and movies.

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