Here’s a recent headline I ran across in Slate: “Brave Portland Woman Breaks Up Planned Parenthood Protest by Chanting ‘Yeast Infections!’”
The story centers around a woman who works at Portland’s Purringtons Cat Lounge. After witnessing a pro-life protester outside, Mary Numair, who is a big fan of Planned Parenthood, decided to take matters into her own hands by making a sign and yelling at some people:
The sign, which Numair crafted out of masking tape and a piece of cardboard from the dumpster, praised Planned Parenthood for treating her chronic yeast infections when she was in her early 20s and uninsured. It also included a delightful cartoon of a vagina with a smiling clitoris and a stick figure with pigtails and prominent breasts…
Now, however delightful or political profound a smiling clitoris cartoon sketched on a piece of discarded cardboard might be, being a liberal in Portland doesn’t exactly tell us that you’re prepared to face or endure danger or pain or that you show any particular courage in the face of a serious threat. Neither, sad to say, does yelling “yeast infections!” Portland pro-life protestors were undoubtedly non-violent (as almost all pro-life protests are) and Numair’s pro-government protestation was not only protected by law but probably cheered by most.
Actually, her act was celebrated by a major news site. So Joan of Arc she is most certainly not.
But I’ve noticed a lot of this lately; and perhaps it’s not new. Every day there’s some story focusing on false heroes and pseudo-bravery masquerading as some valiant or defiant action. Not only on the political front, but in culture, where fake courageousness not only dilutes the genuine heroic actions of others, but is used to create the false impression that people are engaged in actions far more important than they really are. Bravery is not synonymous with “you agree with me.”
“In a Brave, Powerful Dissent, Justice Breyer Calls for the Abolition of the Death Penalty” reads the headline of another Slate piece from this summer. Is it really “brave” for a liberal judge on the Supreme Court, who faces absolutely no threat of blowback or risk to his livelihood, to take a standard liberal position? Isn’t it braver for someone, say Samuel Alito, to be the sole dissenter and argue an unpopular position completely out of step with public opinion? Being right, or wrong, doesn’t necessarily equate with fearlessness.
“Ahmed Mohamed Is the Muslim Hero America’s Been Waiting For,” says a piece in The Daily Beast. A boy pretends to invent a clock that looks sort of like a bomb. Teachers overreact. Family shops kid around as the poster child of victimhood. No one risks anything. The kid meets the president. A monarch offered the kid a scholarship. Is this really the Martin Luther King Jr. of American Muslims? Hero is not synonymous with “this person allows me to lecture you about how terrible America is.”
“Caitlyn Jenner is Glamour’s Woman Of The Year” and “The Bravest Girls in the World are Glamour Women of the Year.”
Jenner, even in the most compassionate reading of his situation, isn’t particularly brave, unless you consider working near a chilly air-conditioner at a Glamour photo shoot or dealing with stress of sagging ratings on your own reality show acts of heroism. In a multicultural society, Jenner might feel somewhat uncomfortable in his new identity (although that too seems unlikely, considering his many public appearances) and he may endure some rare criticism about his lifestyle choices from those still willing to be called transphobic (which technically speaking, is a more “courageous” position to take these days), but that doesn’t make Jenner anything like Rosa Parks.
I don’t want to just pick on lefties. Anyone can be considered a hero these days. And I mean anyone. “Anyone who puts on pants and goes to work for their family is a hero,” explained Donald Trump spokesperson Michael Cohen not long ago. He was offering this as apology after Trump questioned Sen. John McCain’s heroism as a captive during the Vietnam War.
Sarah Palin went further and claimed that both billionaire Trump and war vet McCain were heroes. “Both blazed trails in their careers and love our great nation,” she claimed. This sort of excitable populism—the kind that casts everyday people as heroes, simply for loving their nation—is not unique to presidential candidates, though it is almost always untrue. Ronald Reagan once said that “everyday Americans” were heroes. We’re not. You’re not a hero simply for being wealthy, or for being poor.
Politicians love to tell you that going to work or being a mom or dad is an act of heroism, when it’s really nothing more than a basic act of responsibility and adulthood. Novelists are not courageous for writing books, unless someone is threatening their lives. Artists are not brave for upsetting or confusing people. Farmers—a large percentage of whom are millionaires—are not heroes for having a good public image. Neither are small-business owners.
With all that said, I’m not always certain I know what true heroism looks like, though I’m pretty certain I know what it isn’t. Over at National Review Kathryn Jean Lopez interviews Tod Lindberg, author of “The Heroic Heart: Greatness Ancient and Modern.” Lopez wonders “how the adjudication of heroism been democratized and wikified:”?
LINDBERG: Socrates was put to death for corrupting the youth and refusing to honor the gods. In the old days, political authorities enforced their ideas about who the heroes and gods were. You disagreed at your peril. In an open, pluralistic society like ours, people can decide for themselves who counts as a hero, and they will often disagree (especially when politics enters the picture). Mass media are no longer the gatekeepers they once were. If you have 36,000 followers on Twitter, as you personally do, that’s an impressive affinity group that has voluntarily gathered around you. I do think this free-wheeling wikiculture makes it all the more remarkable that there is a near-perfect consensus figure of heroism in our society: the 9/11 firefighter, someone who puts it all on the line to try to save the lives of strangers.
I think this is a pretty satisfying answer. Few people would argue that someone who puts it all on the line to try to save the lives of strangers is not a hero. But it’s pretty rare. Maybe in a pluralistic and free society we don’t need as many heroes. That might be a good thing. But what we shouldn’t do is confuse heroism with the actions of someone who is merely reaffirming our own worldview. Yet that seems to be the case quite often.