The Cult of the Hero

“[People] fall into a cult of big hero/rockstar worship and don’t appreciate the efforts of small local ‘invisible’ everyday heroes and their small acts.” — Manish Jain

It seems like everyone has to be a hero today – and we must worship many heroes too. But most of these so-called heroes rarely represent persons who demonstrate extraordinary skills, virtues, or courage. 

The desire to worship or look up to others is as old as humans. We want to find inspiration. Perhaps we seek motivation in our own life by witnessing someone else’s achievements. And in times of uncertainty and fear, the need for leadership grows. We all want someone to reassure us that ‘everything will be fine.’ 

If we look back to some of the earliest written records of heroism, there are epic stories, like Homer’s Odyssey. Written in poetic form, the author narrated the ten-year long return home of the Greek hero Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin), after the Trojan War, which also lasted ten years, and all of the challenges and obstacles he had to face on his journey.

The aspiring heroes of today, however, do not even try to embody bravery, hard work, or perseverance. Quite the opposite. Their pursuits are mostly egotistical, seeking to only aggrandise themselves, easily and quickly. All you need, it seems, are followers, corporate sponsors, or lots of money.

But how did we come to a place where those most worshipped are often mere commodities promoting products or a way of life we don’t need? Why do we look up to people who have amassed indecent amounts of wealth, at the expense of, many times, exploiting people and the planet? Do we actually believe they can save us?

While we may snicker at people wanting to be famous (cause we’re too cool for that), there’s clearly a trend that should concern us. Historian Sir John Glubb said that when the heroes are no longer statesmen or literary geniuses, rather football players, actors or singers, it’s a sign of a declining nation. 

In How to Spot a Fascist, Umberto Eco draws out a list of 14 characteristics in society to watch out for: all you need is one of them to be present and “a Fascist nebula will be present,” he wrote. Point 11 is when everyone is trained to be a hero: there are no longer exceptional human beings, instead, heroism is the norm. 

There are, of course, many exceptional human beings who are truly striving for a better society, but they rarely seek attention and they – and their work – tend to be overshadowed by those who pretend to be doing something worthy of being seen as heroism. 

Activist and scholar Manish Jain said that people today romanticise the idea of what social change is, which partly comes from watching too many Ted Talks. People are quite content being ‘armchair supporters’, he says, but they are not people who are rolling up their sleeves and actually creating things.

These people suffer from what he calls Tedxitis, they “get caught up in the pressure and dogma of wanting to only work on projects that are easier to ‘scale up’ and speed up; they lose sight of and value for what is appropriate human scale/localization and slow processes. The world of tech is awash with self-stylised social entrepreneurs who think they can fix the world with yet another app.

Unfortunately, this celebrity-seeking behaviour also affects the real activists. Activists must become celebrities (and celebrities are trying to become activists). In this process, they must be good at public speaking, so they can do a Ted Talk, get professional headshots, and be active on all social media platforms.

It is almost inconceivable that one could be an activist and do their work quietly, away from the public eye, from the noise. And if one also happens to be affected by the cause they fight for - as victim or survivor - all the better, they will be encouraged to use their personal story to get more attention. Regardless of the impact this may cause on them personally, people must become heroes of their own trauma. 

Children are the latest activists we are dressing up as superheroes so that they can save the climate. Every NGO that works on children’s issues must include their voices, or let them participate. Children, like adults, should be able to influence and have decision-making power on issues that affect them - be it political, social, economical, or ecological. 

However, rarely does this work contribute to actual systemic change. Most of what we see is either tokenistic, or it brings children into an already failing process, like rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. And this leaves children disillusioned and exhausted. If adults are responsible for causing the mess in the first place, they should be the ones cleaning it up - we cannot put the responsibility on children. It’s too much of a burden. 

So how can we support and celebrate the quiet work that activists are doing without turning them into a celebrity? Is it under the public eye that change actually happens? 

Jain says we need unwiring. We need a culture of collaboration where it’s no longer about being the best, or first, but about open source sharing. 

Perhaps we could also simply stop trying to be fantastic. Feminist Writer and Comedian Deborah Frances-White says a “perfect person has never led a revolution, anyone trying to create a perfect piece of art creates a mediocre derivative one or an outlandish one trying hard to be clever or interesting, rather than something from the heart and soul of a flawed human being that will speak to other human beings.”

Personally, I will take my cue from Devendra Banhart and just wish to be a little seahorse.

Words, Veronica Yates
Illustration, Miriam Sugranyes


The Odyssey
, Homer.

How to Spot a Fascist, Umberto Eco.

The Fate of Empires and Search for Survival, Sir John Glubb.

‘Manish Jain: “Our work is to recover wisdom and imagination,”’ Interview by Rob Hopkins, Imagination taking power, January 31, 2018.

‘TEDx-itis,’  Manish Jain, Shikshantar Andolan

‘Stop Trying to Be Fantastic with Grace Petrie and special guest Molly Naylor,’ The Guilty Feminist episode 355, by Deborah Frances-White, 24 April 2023.

'Seahorse,' from the album Smokey Roles Down Thunder Canyon, Devendra Banhart. 

Further Reading

‘Human Rights Group Campaigns to Stop the Use of Child Politicians in Africa,’ The Onion.

‘The Real Hero - No, Maybe, Yes,’ Dr Sue Hanley, LinkedIn post.

The Burnout Society, Byung-Chul Han.

The Expulsion of the Other, Byung-Chul Han.

‘Stop Trying to Be Fantastic,’ Molly Naylor, Play and book.

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