Are We Overusing the Word ‘Hero’?

In the 1994 Robert Redford-directed Quiz Show, professor Charles Van Doren confesses in testimony before Congress that he had knowingly participated in the rigging of a TV game show which led to a shocking national scandal. The charming Van Doren, played by Ralph Fiennes, is so sincere and humble in his mea culpa that the investigative committee members are won over; one after another commends him for his “soul-searching fortitude” rather than holding him accountable for the deception he helped perpetrate against the American public.

That is, until one Congressman has the moral clarity to point out to Van Doren that “an adult of your intelligence should not be commended for simply and at long last telling the truth.”

I thought about this scene as I read a recent interview that appeared in the UK with actor Tom Hanks and director Clint Eastwood, who teamed up for Sully: Miracle On the Hudson. The movie is based on the real-life heroism of Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who piloted a stricken passenger plane safely into New York’s Hudson River in 2009, saving the lives of all 155 people onboard. (The film has already left theaters here in the States, but it opened in the UK just this past weekend).

Eastwood said that Sullenberger deserves the label “hero” but that it has otherwise been devalued thanks to political correctness. “It’s certainly different to when I grew up,” said Eastwood. “It’s all in this sort of politically correct thing where everyone has to win a prize. All the little boys in the class have to go home with a first place trophy. The use of the word ‘hero’ is a little bit overdone but I don’t think so in Sully’s case. He went extra and beyond what was expected.”

Hanks, who played Sully, agreed. “The textbook definition of a hero is someone who voluntarily puts themselves in harm’s way for the betterment of others.”

Spot on, Tom. Personal sacrifice in the act of service to others is the essential ingredient of modern heroism (as opposed to the classical notion of heroism, which was centered on great deeds undertaken in the pursuit of personal glory). “That happens on occasion,” Hanks continued, but today “hero” is “ridiculously overused” and has become “a shorthand for accomplishment.”

“Not all accomplishments are heroic accomplishments,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just people doing the right thing and you don’t necessarily deserve kudos for doing the right thing”—precisely the point the Congressman made to Charles Van Doren in Quiz Show.

Doing the right thing is not always easy and indeed, sometimes the consequences are painful. But it should be the baseline for our behavior. It should be the standard by which we live our lives, decision by decision, moment by moment. Doing the right thing is honorable but not necessarily heroic.

Among CNN’s Top Ten Heroes of 2015, for example, were: a woman in Surinam who has rescued, rehabilitated, and released hundreds of mammals back to the rainforest and created a conservation nonprofit organization; a Native American woman whose nonprofit helps members of a South Dakota Sioux reservation with employment, safe housing, and healthy food; and an orthopedic surgeon who treats patients in Chicago’s troubled neighborhoods, regardless of their ability to pay.

These people clearly and admirably have dedicated themselves to serving others; they unquestionably are making the world a better place. Are they heroes in the strictest sense of sacrificing for others, of putting their lives on the line? Their CNN profiles don’t indicate so.

This is not in any way to suggest that CNN “Top Ten Heroes” have not sacrificed, accomplished remarkable things, and earned our praise—only that we must be careful not to devalue the word “heroism,” which should require an element of extraordinary risk; it should be considered the highest level to which we strive to rise when dire circumstances demand it.

Tom Hanks acknowledges this distinction. Asked whether he drew on any real-life near-death experiences when filming Sully’s harrowing landing scene, he refreshingly admitted to being no hero. “I’m a pussy, man. I’m an actor. I haven’t done anything that’s near death. Once I had to swim in the open ocean in Cast Away. Oh, jeepers. Terrible. Crazy. I’ve never experienced anything remotely like this.”

That having been said, Hanks may have overstated the point when he said, “Heroism is rare as lightning storms.” While dramatic examples of heroism like Chesley Sullenberger’s miracle water landing may be few and far between, there are less celebrated heroes who move among us every day—in police uniforms, military uniforms, and firefighting gear, for example—ready and willing to put their lives on the line for others. And all the rest of us at least have the potential to rise to the occasion—even Tom Hanks, I suspect.

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  • Jon Camp

    Sorry, but this article put me in mind of this little video clip:

    I do completely agree that “hero” is an overused word, though.

  • Robert Schaefer

    Ok, so I agree with Hanks’ and Eastwood’s definition of hero. So, what makes Sully a hero? He didn’t “voluntarily risk his life.” The life he saved was his own, he just brought 155 people with him. He’s clearly a talented pilot with amazing technical skill but it’s not like he rushed into a burning building or dove on a grenade.