The Word ‘Hero’ Has Lost All Meaning

When essential workers are risking death, they need more than idle praise

Let me confess something: Each evening, at 8 p.m., when my neighbors emerge from their homes and line the sidewalk to cheer and applaud for health-care workers, banging pots and pans, encouraging any passing car to honk, I stay inside. I don’t begrudge them this ritual, and I’m aware of the strain that medical professionals are under, but the “support” of the ovation seems cheap to me, though the motives are obviously sincere. Its true value, I suspect, is cathartic: After another day in quarantine, you want to howl at the night. 

The word “hero” now operates in similar fashion. Typically reserved for the police, firefighters, other first responders and military personnel, it has, thanks to coronavirus, widened to include all “essential workers” — everyone from doctors and hospital staff to bus drivers and grocery baggers. There is an undeniable heroism in working to save lives during a pandemic, or risking your own health to maintain the fabric of our alarmingly fragile society. When you call these people heroes, you mean it. Yet part of the reason for this language is to make ourselves feel better about the preventable danger these workers find themselves in. It is nicer, for us, to imagine them as beacons of courage, volunteering to brave the horrors of an infected world, than individuals trapped by precarity, unable to walk off the job, fearful of exposing family to disease.

In practice, “hero” worship often arrives in place of material assistance. Instead of the resources doctors and nurses actually need, they get a mawkish Banksy painting. Instead of safe conditions and a sensible sick leave policy, the sales force at Lowe’s Home Improvement stores get empty praise and a forced Easter Sunday off — without pay, of course. In a sense, this is nothing out of the ordinary: We give armed service veterans the “hero” label for waging horrific wars in the name of American capital and empire, then deny them adequate treatment for their physical and mental trauma, abandoning them to utter despair. It’s hard to name a set of heroes more respected than 9/11 responders, and even they had a bitter fight to see that resulting illnesses would be compensated by government. A hero is someone we’re likely to screw over.

At its most sinister, then, “hero” is a watchword of the functionally indifferent status quo: We expect heroes to be satisfied with our thanks or fawning, and little else. It’s what “thoughts and prayers” are to school shootings in the absence of gun reform, or what “exposure” is to creatives looking for financial gain. When you make someone a hero, you superimpose a humility that negates the desire for just rewards — by connotative definition, a hero rejects money, influence or simple recognition, though we’ll give them the last in some fuzzy gesture of a “solidarity” that benefits our egos, not their situation. Yes, a hero is by nature content with fulfillment of a crushing, thankless duty — with a loyalty to their own ethic — that is wholly divorced from matters like next month’s rent.

Is it any wonder that the Trump administration and its enablers can laud the health-care sector as heroes while fundamentally undermining the U.S. response to COVID-19 at every turn? The president himself has added to their burden while minimizing the scale of the problem, echoed harmful pseudoscience and baldly refused to model the behaviors that stem contagion. At this moment, he’s pushing for a broad reopening of the economy as internal White House data projects a dizzying spike in deaths. It is the task of a hero to perform triage on a collapsing system, since nobody will lift a finger to redesign that system in a way that strengthens it or ensures the justice of its outcomes. A hero is, above all, a sacrifice to the rotten culture that does not wish to heal itself.

Over the coming weeks and months, many of these heroes are bound to succumb to the virus — and of that group, a number will die in agony, alone. The effect of “hero” rhetoric is to render those deaths as noble, if tragic, and ultimately, a question of fate. But none of this was preordained, and there is no comfort in a life cut short to sustain a bull market. We salute heroes to avoid seeing them as victims, the acceptable losses of a brutal calculus.

And those who do survive the summer, and this year, should not expect our shows of gratitude to last. Heroism is a fleeting trait, almost as expendable as the human beings we honor with the term, who deserve at least the dignity it conjures.