Monday, October 29, 2012

Do we need heroes?

Pinocchio, mascot of the World Cycling Championships 2013 in Firenze, Italy

I think that most of my readers will have heard of the Armstrong affair in bicycle racing: the case of the American pro-cyclist Lance Armstrong who had won the Tour de France cycle race seven times in succession with the help of doping and who had developed an ingenuous system for hiding that he had used doping. Moreover, he had also “forced” his team mates to use doping. Since I am a huge fan of bicycle racing, I am very disappointed, as you’ll understand, also because it has become clear again that this sport has been deeply poisoned by doping. Happily, the use of doping has decreased a lot since Armstrong left the sport (but not because he left but because of strict measures against it) and it has always had “clean” branches: cyclo-cross and women racing, for instance. But why is it so that I am so disappointed? Because in my view it’s a beautiful sport, of course, but also because something else is the case: a hero has been knocked of his pedestal. Lance Armstrong: once a person admired by everybody, now treated like dirt.
I think that the latter, the case of the fallen hero, gives the Armstrong affair a wider meaning. It is not only about Armstrong, his teammates and pro-cycling; the whole affair tells a lot about us: participants, onlookers and mere passers-by. For how could things have gone so far? Not, I think, because Armstrong has a dirty or criminal mind. I don’t think that his mind is dirtier or more criminal than mine or yours. I think that it could happen, because I and you and the whole society need heroes and now a hero has been exposed as a cheater. We need examples: persons who do what we cannot do or think we cannot do. They stimulate us to do things we shouldn’t maybe do if we didn’t have our heroes. A tennis player who wins Wimbledon which makes then a lot of children in his or her country start to play tennis as well is a case in point. Or people follow an anti-hero like Werther from Goethe’s novel, whose suicide made that many people followed him. People don’t like to do things on their own initiative, unless they have examples they can follow. Thinking for themselves is too difficult for many people. Many political and other leaders are acquainted with this mechanism, and so they have created titles like Hero of the Soviet Union or Hero of Labour, Mother-Hero and other beautiful titles and honours. Or political leaders (like Mao) are mystified (or deified in the past). When that happens, something has gone wrong with society. People don’t think for themselves any longer.
These are extreme cases, but they are not exceptional; rather they are the rule. Of course, there is nothing against admiration. In fact, there is a sliding scale between admiring and idolizing, or – what I think is a better word for the latter – “herofying”. It’s so for persons and it’s so for societies. I think that the degree of “herofying” in a society says a bit about the nature of that society. Is it by mere chance that in a society where we find our Armstrongs we find also too many bankers and managers of big (and smaller) companies who have been shown up as people mainly interested in filling their pockets with money? Isn’t it the same mentality: one that sees people on the top as people to be admired or even herofied who are allowed to do everything as long as nobody sees it (or at least talks about it?). I think so, and that’s why what I heard a neuropsychiatrist in a French TV program saying is so to the point: “A society in peace doesn’t need heroes. When it needs them, it is ill”.

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