Pick any country on the map and go through their history, you are bound to find a litany of national heroes. Strike up a conversation with any random person and if it gets personal enough you will learn that they too have their personal heroes. It is thus not a shocking revelation to say that, at both an individual level and at the scale of a nation, admiration for those who do great things is a pretty consistent feature. Individuals who accomplish positive feats that are out of the ordinary earn the recognition and praise of others. This can even go on for generations after they’ve lived. As social beings, we look at those around us, in a state of constant exchange. Others provide us with information about who we are, as individuals and as larger groups. Through an examination of a society’s choices of the people it elevates, we can learn what is considered admirable, what events and feats are worth remembering, and what traits and values are worth passing on to subsequent generations. An individual’s choice of their own heroes can also convey similar information about them as a person.
Haiti, being a country on the map, is no exception. With the likes of Dessalines, Toussaint, Christophe, Sanite Belair, and more we boast our own pantheon of national heroes whose exploits could fill numerous books. And with good reason, for these accomplishments were world shifting. The deeds of these men and women of valour led to the creation of the first nation of free black men and women in the new world. This was something that went against the established order of the world in a very literal sense. The material results of their actions went beyond the limits of collective imagination, it gave birth to something that was deemed outside the realm of possibilities. And for this reason, we as a nation put them on the highest pedestal.
The trouble with those on pedestals, however, is that they’re often not very relatable. They’re great when it comes to setting unattainable standards for which we should strive, but they are very difficult to emulate. We already have a hard time meeting our own standards as ordinary people, so how could we ever be expected to rise to meet those of our own heroes? If that is the case, some might realistically be led to wonder what purpose having heroes even serves but simply remind us of all the ways in which we fall short of their lofty standards. Others of a more pessimistic disposition, could even suggest that those we consider heroes weren’t as perfect as we imagine them anyway and are thus not worthy of the kind of veneration we show them. Facing such tough questions could lead us down a path of iconoclastic frenzy where we decide it is simpler to do away with this business of having heroes altogether. But it could lead us to take a closer look at the heroes we choose and the way we tell their stories.
One of the unexpected places such an exploration could take us is into the world of Game of Thrones. It’s an understatement to say that the once widely popular series ended in rather polarising fashion. The sociologist Zeynep Tufekci penned an essay to unpack what it was about the show’s ending that left such a poor taste in the mouths of fans the world over. In it she took a look at the forms of storytelling that the show employed, particularly the ways it used “psychological” and “sociological” storytelling. Psychological storytelling, as she explains, is the form of storytelling we’re all familiar with. It usually involves a protagonist, facing some sort of conflict who arrives at a resolution, often through some kind of individual heroic exploit. These are the stories we’ve been hearing from our earliest days, they’re the novels we read, the movies and TV shows we watch, and they are also the stories we tell. Sociological storytelling on the other hand takes a broader look at the events going on, we pull away from the individual perspective and get a bird’s eye view. As a result it becomes easier to see how multiple factors might come into play and lead to a situation. It also makes it easier to see and consider the motives behind any individual’s actions.
When observing people and their actions, we have a tendency to be categorical and fall into what social psychologists call “fundamental attribution bias”. This fancy term means that we have a huge double standard when it comes to judging our actions and those of others. When it comes to ourselves and those we care about, we are fully capable of being nuanced and have a perfect grasp on how circumstances might influence our behaviours, but for anyone else we’re Ray Charles in this b****. Someone who cuts in front of me in a line is an inconsiderate asshole and that’s all there is to it; he does therefore he is. But if a friend, or God forbid I, were cut in front of someone, well there would obviously be a perfectly good explanation for it. Just because my friends or I might do a shitty thing once in a while doesn’t make us shitty people. Context matters! Maybe I was in a hurry!?!? Surely they had an urgent matter to tend to and simply couldn’t bear to wait, thus behaved in such uncharacteristic fashion. Being aware of such a bias, and having an understanding of how the different forms of storytelling work, forces us to look at the bigger picture and consider factors that extend beyond an individual’s nature when looking at their actions.
Now where this gets interesting is if we apply this same reasoning to those we consider heroes. At first the task of bringing our heroes down to our level might not feel like a very gratifying one, but value can be found in embracing the idea that they weren’t special people. Surely they might’ve done extraordinary things, but they weren’t extraordinary human beings, or at the very least they didn’t start out as such. They had the same feelings, the same desires, the same fears we do. They were also moved by external pressures just like we are, and often simply tried to make the best decisions they could given their context. When we consider all those things, coupled with the benefit of hindsight, we are left with a sobering yet empowering revelation that our heroes were not better than us. Looking at the challenges we face today, it’s easy to get discouraged and think only some extraordinary heroic actions can fix things. Heroic actions don’t happen out of nowhere, and often don’t appear so heroic initially. They’re usually simply a cumulation of ordinary acts made by ordinary people trying to do the best they can. So we shouldn’t expect heroes to save us because at the end of the day the only heroes we ever had were the heroes we made.