Saturday, 25 January 2014

On Heroism

hero: late 14c., “(person) of superhuman strength or physical courage,” from Latin heros “hero,” from Greek heros "demi-god" (a variant singular of which was heroe), originally “defender, protector”.
-Online Etymology Dictionary

'He won't always follow orders,
for he dares to answer “Why?”
and unless he likes the reason,
he refuses to comply.'
-The Sultan, Quest for Glory 2

'Being a hero has a lot of perks, you know. You get the respect of the people, cheap rates at inns, and you can even walk into people's houses and take stuff.'
-Luka, Monmusu Kuesto

Increases melee, ranged, and spell casting speed by 30% for all party and raid members. Lasts 40 sec.
Allies receiving this effect will be unable to benefit from Heroism again for 10 min.
-'Heroism' ability available to players of the Shaman class in World of Warcraft

'Heroism by order, senseless violence, and all the pestilent nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism – how I hate them!'
-The World as I See It, Albert Einstein (1931)

'Nice job breaking it, hero.'
-GLaDOS, Portal

Heroes and heroism. Treacherous territory, this. The kind of territory where, no matter where you stand at a given moment, you can expect that someone somewhere would very much like to shoot you. Nonetheless, let's have a brief exploration – and let's keep moving.

Let distinctions between fictional and non-fictional heroism be of no concern for this discussion. Heroism, after all, is one topic where the line between is not so easy to place; where one person's reality may be another's most monstrous nonsense. And vice versa.

The sum of human efforts to define heroism, to struggle against other people's definitions, and to decide whether heroes are a good or bad thing, has produced enough energy that if it were harnessed it could supplant the entire high-carbon economy. So let's not thrash around in those debates now, save to address one unavoidable landmark in the analysis. That monument – whose grandeur or ugliness, depending on your perspective, has divided opinion – is the notion of the “Hero's Journey” or “monomyth” put forward by Joseph Campbell in 1949. In short, this is the idea that virtually all heroic stories, from any culture, in any format, can essentially be reduced to one basic pattern that is common to them all.
One rendition of the “Hero's Journey”, courtesy of Comrade Wikipedia.
Those familiar with the Hero's Journey will know of its armies of proponents and detractors, who have in the former case developed it to ever-increasing sophistication, and in the latter critiqued it to bits. It can be both accused and defended on a range of very serious charges: that in concept or effect it is culturally biased; gender-loaded; or just plain wrong. Campbell's original model threw in some horribly essentialist gendered associations: 'woman as temptress', 'atonement with the father', and so forth. We shall speed right past these problems for our present purposes, and take it as given that heroism is equally applicable or relevant to any person, female or male or otherwise, of any ethnicity or culture. All are diverse.

In my own opinion I will admit there may be a certain value, and honest veracity, in identifying common patterns that appear so nigh-universally in humanity's stories, and asking why they do so. However I remain sharply sceptical of such a reductionist exercise, especially when its assertion is still, to a large extent, the affair mostly of people who just happen to be white, male, and chiefly immersed in the cultural environment of the United States.

One point, however, appears to stand strong. Hero's Journey. A hero, whatever else, by definition has a journey. This appears absolute. Anyone who can be even remotely construed as a hero experiences a personal story, in which those people his or her choices affect, but also the hero himself or herself, achieve a better condition than they were in at the start. (Or as we must come to, when we speak of tragic heroes, fallen heroes, or heroes who are not heroes at all, the resultant condition may be worse rather than better.)

Consider a person who arrives in a troubled society, and is already powerful and wise enough to solve all its problems instantly, with little effort, even be it such a way that everybody likes it. We might call that a favour, or a service, but it hardly seems apt to call it heroism. Heroism seems inherently to connote some struggle, an overcoming of unfair odds and ordeals set both by challenging external forces and the hero's own flaws. A courage that requires one first to be afraid; a learning experience that requires one first to be foolish; and a will to confront difficult value choices or judgement calls, that grows at last to soar above both the jeers of arrogant societies and the countervailing arrogance of one's own heart.


One Person's Hero...
But you may be one of those people who hears alarm bells ringing at the very mention of heroism. That would be well justified. In a world like ours, we have been amply acquainted with the concept's more dangerous dimensions.

For it is like this. Heroes are made by their journeys; their journeys are told of in stories; and stories are shaped and expressed in accordance with their narratives. Narratives are the stories' underlying frameworks: the values, beliefs, assumptions and points of view that inform how the stories are told, and which decide, among other things, what a hero is or is not.

And we, humanity, have accumulated a planet-load of horrible narratives.

So it is that the “heroes” of nationalist narratives, racist narratives, gendered narratives, heteronormative narratives, “development” narratives, “rational choice” narratives, “clash of civilization” narratives, “war on terror” narratives and so forth, have in sum dealt quite unheroic cruelties to extremely large numbers of human beings and societies. We live in a world tormented by Things Which Should Not Exist, and when we allow those Things control of our narratives, we too readily come to believe abominable myths to be absolute truths. And the heroes of these corrupted stories – stories we quite often find those “heroes” wrote themselves – may well be heroic according to the rules they set up for those stories, but look considerably less heroic according to the actual welfare of human beings, human communities or the planet Earth, by whose standards they may actually be deplorable, and their narratives nests of egos, lies and bigotries.

Nests we are decidedly poor at dismantling when we live in them. Nationalism is one of them. How many national cultures shower glory on their armed forces or histories of aggression, while casting bile upon other countries'? There they exploit the power of heroic narratives in order to generate jingoism, patriotic fervour, and the vandalisation of history to present their own countries as heroic above all others – as the UK's Conservative Party, for example, is about to do for the centenary of World War I. In a similar vein are characters like Churchill, Thatcher, Stalin, Qin Shihuang, Genghis Khan, Indira Gandhi, Che Guevara, Forbes Burnham, Suharto, and goodness knows how many presidents and generals of the United States – all venerated as national heroes in certain populations' mainstream narratives, while all others recognize that each was in at least some times and places downright heinous. Or worse.

After all, the hero's opposite, the villain, almost always considers him or herself the hero of his or her own narrative. Remember that the concept of “villain” is itself built on prejudice: deriving from the Latin villanus, meaning “farmhand”, or “one who works on a villa”, thus insinuating a link between low or agrarian social class and malicious character. Some who walk or dramatically cross the line between hero and villain – from Arthas Menethil to Tony Blair, from Achilles to Robert Mugabe – become so tragically convinced of the heroism of their quests that they even grow capable of believing it while simultaneously grinding civilizations to dust.

Probably not so heroic.
Where is the line, then, between flawed heroism and plain monstrousness? Might it run through the hearts of us all? This subject is not exactly objective science.

And we are not just talking about history here. We live right now amidst ideological mistakes as mighty and infamous as those preceding us. Consider how many would-be heroes have made it their charge to bring “development” to “developing” countries, or “democracy” to “dictatorships” - be it as heroes of armies, or governments, or NGOs, or international organizations. These are deceitful constructs, which mask much more complicated realities: that none of our societies is democratic, or developed, whatever those may mean; that all our civilizations have their problems, their weaknesses, their oppressions and terrible mistakes; and that there is much we can do to help one another, but also much ignorance, encouraged by many pernicious forces which play up these narratives to serve their selfish agendas.

Heroic? Hint: It depicts something that a) was bloody and aggressive and b) might not have actually happened.

Several masses of inglorious heritage compromise the matter almost beyond redemption. One is the biting shadow of colonialism and racism, the violent division of human peoples against each other, such that so much interaction must now invoke suspicion: in this case of a vainglorious sense of “hero's burden” that alienates and patronises the people whose problems the hero claims to understand better than they do; those whom the “hero”, consciously or not, deems unfit to be the heroes of their own stories. Another is gender, whose nasty complexity sows conflict even amongst the heroes and anti-heroes who fight it. A man who sets out to protect women may in one context be considered heroic, but in another may only reinforce the deeper problem of gender, whereby heroism is expected of men and victimhood of women: and by furthering this separation and stereotyping, he may thereby worsen the underlying problem.

That is not to say that one who believes those twisted narratives cannot become a hero. On the contrary, such devotion is exactly the kind of flaw whose overcoming may be the central act of a compelling hero's journey. Numerous are those for example who go to “developing” countries and find, to their surprise, that things are not as straightforward as the “development” paradigm makes them seem. But sadly we seem often to fail to surpass those flaws, too convinced that we ourselves are the experts, that we need no journey at all, and in such a mode bring ruin and resentment to those we thought we were aiding.

Societies that have had enough of getting brutalised by nationalist or gendered “heroes”, or insulted by the sanctimony of development “heroes”, may therefore have good reason to suspect all who come before them professing good intentions, and call them narcissists who are “playing the hero” or bearing “hero complexes”, “hero syndromes”: accusing them of caring more for attention-seeking than for the actual welfare of others.

This arrogance however can as easily infest the societies as the would-be heroes. These hard-hitting terms too often get swung at those who do not deserve it, because societies tend to generate a lot of their problems themselves. They might terrorize their dissidents, persecute those they consider different, stir up prejudices against their most vulnerable members, or be prepared to sacrifice minorities to great cruelties if they feel it to be in the majority interest. In those circumstances, distaste for heroism is a powerful and dangerous narrative tool, where the “heroes” who speak up against injustice, we are led to believe, are inconsiderate individuals who rock the boat, disturb social harmony, agitate over unimportant things, and obviously do not really care about others' suffering because they have their own agenda of selfish gain and ego-aggrandisement, and quite probably foreign backing.

This is an especially compelling narrative in societies with a more collective heritage, where people fear for good reason the wanton materialistic individualism that ransacks Europe and the United States. Or they might say, “our culture does not like heroes, so shut up”; typically against a background with dramatic giant statues of their liberation heroes who fought off the old colonisers. So too are there many commentators who believe that humans are inherently selfish, incapable of altruism, who would characterize all human action as inherently self-regarding, be it due to ideologies of 'rationality', or 'sin', or bad biology or others. By such analyses there can be no such thing as true heroism, which by definition requires a genuine concern for others. Typically these all rest on crooked ideologies and interests, and we would do well to contest them.

Not much heroic here.

“Hero complex”, and “hero syndrome”, we should remember, are pathologising terms. Medical concepts, carrying suggestions of disease and mental disorder. And with histories like ours, we have no excuse to be anything other than bloody careful when medical terminology gets applied to political subject matter.

Video Game Contributions
Nowhere is heroism a more pivotal concept than in the human race's huge collective heritage of stories, from folk tales to literature, movies to myths, so many of which build their dramatic appeal by presenting heroic protagonists with whom the audience is expected to identify. Video games, as a medium, uniquely raise this to the literal absolute by giving you control of the heroes, making of them your avatars, extensions of your own will and choices. Now we can all be heroes. We are all Link (The Legend of Zelda), or the Pokémon trainer, or the Commander (Command and Conquer), in all their varied incarnations.

Is that a good thing?

Games like World of Warcraft take this further still, by allowing us to actually name and customize our own avatars to best fit our unique identifications, before projecting them into worlds which await their – that is, our – heroic deeds. “Avatar”, we should remember, is what Indian deities used to do when they wanted to come down to Earth. We have in effect commodified, perhaps democratized, a practice that was once the preserve of gods. You are the hero; you make the choices. Except when you don't: after all, a hero chooses, a slave obeys. The power of Bioshock comes precisely in its drastic deconstruction of this unspoken cosmic principle of the video game universe.

Given all our uncertainties and controversies about heroism, ought we to be concerned?

The supreme video game exploration of the concepts of heroes and heroism, in my experience, is found in a title far more obscure. The Japanese roleplaying trilogy known as Monster Girl Quest (Monmusu Kuesto, モンムス クエスト, hereafter MGQ) is on its surface an eroge: that is, a game with considerable sexual content, ostensibly aimed in the first instance at a market of persons who particularly relate to said content's flavour – in this case, men who are submissive as hell and like the idea of being set upon by powerful part-woman part-monster hybrids. As humans, however, we should have the guts and sobriety to look at things with our hands, not just our eyes. Those who do have found themselves well rewarded, in this instance, with what is nothing less than a narrative masterpiece, whose treatment of the concept of heroism – along with many others like prejudice, racism, war, religion, godhood, ethics, justice, good governance, force and persuasion – is as magisterial as it is profound.

To summarize: the setting is a world inhabited by humans and monsters, the latter of course all female (bear with it), and at the story's opening, relations between the two are a disastrous mess of hatred, fear and violent conflict. Into this mess embarks the protagonist, Luka: an inexperienced young man from a deeply devout village, who receives a calling from his goddess to go and become a hero by defeating the Monster Lord. He has had a somewhat indoctrinated upbringing, cannot be called physically large or strong, and is not in all matters the sharpest tool in the shed, but he bears a strong desire for peaceful coexistence between humans and monsters: a dream at some tension with his religious devotion to a goddess who happens to be a callous and magnificently calculating megalomaniac, and the very architect of that world's sordid circumstances in the first place.

Heroism in that human society is an established institution. Upon coming of age, a would-be hero attends a baptism ceremony and receives the goddess's blessing, from which follows various combat advantages and socio-economic perks. But for Luka, things do not go to plan. On the way to his baptism he stops to help an unconscious and ungrateful monster in the forest, which causes him to miss the ceremony, thus failing admission as a hero and losing all hope at recognition as such, much to the ridicule of that establishment from then on.

But he persists nevertheless, and soon acquires a travelling companion in the form of the monster he tried to help, who he returns to find has entered his house, ready to further provoke and denigrate his beliefs. Surly and sarcastic, she holds considerable disdain for humans, their faith, and Luka's dream of coexistence, serves as a foil for his idealism with no end of crushing deadpan witticisms, eats his stuff, refuses to help in battles, and takes to regularly addressing him as 'idiot' and 'fake hero': a stigma which effectively becomes his label for the entirety of the story. To complicate things further, it transpires that this monster is the ridiculously powerful Monster Lord, Alipheese XVI (“Alice”), precisely the person Luka is supposed to defeat as the ultimate goal of his heroic journey – though she too has set forth on a journey of her own.

And so the story unfolds into an epic saga, of a struggle to promote peaceful coexistence in a world with an arduous diversity of characters, communities, conflicts, uncompromising challenges, and ruthless countervailing interests including but not limited to those of the protagonist's own god. Alongside it comes an inner struggle no less crucial, to reconcile dreams and faith, to master oneself, and learn through true ordeals – the only way – what being a hero actually means.

It is quickly apparent that recognized, baptised mass-produced heroes tend to be a dodgy lot, prone to exploiting their perks (going into people's houses and taking stuff – compare Legend of Zelda), swaggering around with ignorance and cheapening the concept, then buckling out of weakness or fear as soon as any true challenge confronts them; which has led many of the monsters to despise “heroes” and view them as the actual problem. A sentiment that will be well familiar, perhaps, to people with reason to be fed up of the “heroes” of international development; as well as any World of Warcraft player who has endured the special miseries of dungeons, raid groups or conversations with some of the less agreeable of the 10-million “heroes” who comprise its player base. It is the struggles and resolve of the 'fake hero', rather, that draw the attention of serious monster antagonists, and eventually, against all odds, attain their respect; but not before one heck of a lot of hard lessons.

At first glance the moral is obvious: that true heroism is about deeds, choices, love, a learning journey, and the courage of one's own convictions – not a label or subjective recognition. But of course the reality is not nearly so straightforward in MGQ's complex world, with its conflicts, traumas, agendas, prejudices, difficult ethical dilemmas, and huge diversities of cultures and experiences. A world full of characters who actively or passively, for better or worse, consider themselves heroes in their own narratives: be they flawed heroes, fallen heroes, anti-heroes, warriors, researchers, ideologues, terrorists, tyrants, or lunatics.

MGQ breaks open the veneers on heroism to expose so much wordplay lying beneath, by which those we call heroes are often decidedly unheroic, while true heroes neither rush to consider themselves heroes nor are necessarily recognized as such by society's wordsmiths and norm-spinners. In the end, it is an utterly political concept. What each of us considers heroic, is inseparable from each of our visions of how we wish the world to be.

Heroism, then, is a chimera, a construct, like many of MGQ's eponymous monsters. And like those, it can be beautiful, it can be horrific, or it can be both, but which it is for you depends less on it, and more on you. It takes as reflective and nuanced an approach as MGQ provides to properly do justice to the concept of heroism in a complex world. And so it goes – one thousandfold – with ours.

(Note that if the work in question has caught your interest, be aware that you should only pursue it if you are at least past that unconscionable cultural mistake that is sex-negativity: that is, if you are able to engage with sexual themes critically, without hysteria, panic, or a knee-jerk sense of moral dubiousness. If in doubt, click here and read this article first.)

And So...
It seems that no-one can decide authoritatively what heroism is. It is something we construct; an edifice, or a tool, a means to further ends. You have to decide for yourself what to make of it, above all by questioning, always questioning. Question those who elevate heroes, and ask what kind of world they really want. Question those who denigrate heroes, and ask what motives lurk behind their words. After all, it is for each of us a political question; a struggle; a journey; a story on which each of us always has more to learn. And if ours become good journeys, good stories, then in the end, how much do labels like 'hero' matter after all?

Inherently heroic?

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