Chronicles of Love and Resentment

Eric Gans

Moral Heroism

No. 237: Saturday, June 9, 2001

Like the celebrity, the hero exists for his public as an incarnate representation. But where the first inhabits a disordered world of gossip and anecdote, the second is the protagonist of a clearly ordered narrative. (Once his story has been told, the hero is free to degenerate into a celebrity and figure in gossip columns with the others.) The rigor of the heroic narrative makes it relatively indifferent to the flesh-and-blood reality of its protagonist; fictional and live heroes inhabit very similar discourses.

There are several kinds of heroes. Some struggle against matter--the forces of nature and/or the limitations of the human mind; one rescues flood victims, another invents the light bulb. Such figures may encounter difficulties, even death; but their role as benefactors of humanity is unambiguous, our gratitude unproblematic. The heroism of battle is similar; the humans the combatant faces are like physical forces in the "state of nature." For that reason, his valor is independent of its broader moral context: a Nazi soldier risking his life to aid a wounded comrade is as heroic as any other.

In the problematic center of culture we find moral heroism, heroism defined entirely within the scene of human interaction. The need and opportunity of moral heroism arise from the inherent instability of this scene, where the group is always tempted to defer internal violence through the exercise of external violence. The moral hero espouses the universal value of human reciprocity against the groupís short-term interest; he defends the victim against the crowd. Even if we accept Girardís claim that historical recognition of this kind of heroism is unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition, nothing in this uniqueness is inexplicable in terms of the anthropological scene itself.

In the narrative dynamic of moral heroism, real or fictional, the hero is isolated and unappreciated; except perhaps for a few intimates, no one takes his side against the crowd. In a word, he occupies the position of the Girardian scapegoat. Yet with the whole world against him, he has the support of the only people who really count: the storyteller and his faithful acolyte, the listener. In the world of the story, the hero is persecuted; in the world of its telling, he is rewarded. This dichotomy between esthetic form and content is not, as a facile sophistication suggests, an artifact independent of reality. Just as the sacrificial form of tragedy reflects the inevitability of death, which culture both reveals to us and offers us the wherewithal to make meaningful, so heroic narrative points to a historicized vision of redemption. The hero, who stands for moral values either temporarily forgotten or as yet unrealizable, is hailed by author and reader in anticipation of more universal recognition. In real biographies, we discount early failures through the redemptive lens of later successes; in fictional ones, our sympathy is itself an intimation of the protagonistís immortality.

Moral heroism is the noblest form of heroism, but it is also the most ambiguous. Since it is defined by a stand against oneís own community, it cannot be recognized in the immediate by that community itself. Societies differ in the opportunities they offer for moral heroism because they differ over time and space in the forms and degrees of victimage that the hero defends against. Most notably, the postmodern era that began after WWII was the great global heyday of this kind of heroism. The war and especially the Holocaust provoked a world-wide revulsion against the sacrificial in all its guises and the near-universal adoption of what might be called victimary epistemology: any differential status that could be seen as analogous with that imposed on the Jews by the Nazis was taken as a sign of victimization; any resentment widely shared within a group was taken as proof of victimary status. The global successes of such thinking lent it an air of historical inevitability; whether or not "capitalism" was fated to give way to socialism, inequalities based on race, nationality, and soon, gender, were felt to be morally untenable anachronisms.

We have so well assimilated the lessons of this era that we tend to forget how great a transformation it wrought: the end of colonialism, apartheid, and racial segregation, the assertion of the rights of women, followed by such groups as the physically handicapped and homosexuals, and the emergence of such related phenomena as the animal rights movement, radical environmentalism, and the stigmatization of smoking. But moral heroism has lost much of its strength in recent decades.

At the high point of the victimary revolution, rebels against colonial rule, civil rights workers in the South, and protesters against apartheid took great risks and sometimes sacrificed their lives. But the confidence in history that allows us to venerate heroic liberators is not itself independent of history. I challenge the reader to come up with a single well-publicized example of moral heroism today. (Aung San Suu Kyi, perhaps; Myanmar is just about the only tyranny no one seeks to defend against the United States.) Slavery in the Sudan--which, unlike the US, has a seat on the UN Commission on Human Rights--is surely as oppressive as apartheid was in South Africa, yet a combatant against Sudanese slavery--how many of us could name one?--would be perceived at best as merely one party in a conflict, at worst as a Christian defending Western hegemony against third-world Muslims. Unless a tyranny can be identified as an agent of the Westís "hegemonic" power, we suspect its opponents, however honorable, of being lackeys or pawns of the forces of Late Capitalism. Which is to say that the victimary epistemology that worked so well not long ago has ceased to provide us with useful bearings on political action.

If victim-driven moral heroism is unsustainable in a human world increasingly less clearly separable into victims and persecutors, what form of moral exemplarity can take its place? Although the postmodern era spelt the end of unchallenged hierarchies and "master narratives," it retained the title of hero for those who dared to challenge them. The post-millennial age would do away with even this negative form of sacralization. But with the disappearance of public heroism, the affirmation of our moral intuition is no longer contaminated by the hope of reward. The transition from one era to the next, which is really that from one mind-set to another that is by no means assured of prevailing, implies a new kind of non-heroic moral action that I shall attempt briefly to describe.

Postmodern moral heroism requires the following elements: (1) a "victimary" social structure S1 within which group A has a hierarchical advantage over group B; (2) an individual H, inside or outside S1, who defends the victim Bís right to equality with A; (3) a "post-victimary" social structure S2 that proclaims H a hero. (H cannot be so proclaimed by the community his heroism condemns; the Abolitionists and the civil rights marchers were heroes in the North, not in the South.)

Now let us suppose that the hierarchical, victimary relation between A and B grows more ambiguous, while S2 continues to reward those--call them group C--who still view B as Aís victim, in contrast to those--group D--who no longer do so.

Let us now consider the situation of an individual J who defends the rights of D within S2. There is no new social order S3 to proclaim J a hero. The majority within S2 who continue to define moral heroism as the defense of victims will align themselves with C rather than D and, far from admiring Jís courage in defending the minority within his own society, will condemn him for lending tacit support to Aís hegemony in S1. But the very hostility that J encounters within S2 is a guarantee of moral integrity, if integrity be defined as the courage to stand alone against the crowd, to act sub specie aeternitatis.

J rejects the victimary description of S1 because this description is itself a form of persecution that reproduces itself within S2 in the victimization of D by C. He reminds us that if the original impetus of victimary epistemology was revulsion at antisemitism, the antisemite too presents himself not as persecutor but as victim--of the Jews. Once the victimary system has been unmasked, the unmasking itself becomes a mask. The only solution is the democratic, unromantic one of negotiating mutual grievances.

J may console himself with the thought that we are now entering a post-millennial, post-victimary era. But, unlike H, he cannot point to a trend of obvious moral improvement comparable to that toward racial and gender equality. To affirm that was once the Jewsí moral advantage over the Nazis now belongs neither to Israelis nor Palestinians, neither to Blacks nor Whites, neither to women nor men, is to make a transcendental leap of anthropological faith analogous to that required by messianic religion.

Society needs both public figures and moral exemplars, but, outside of exceptional circumstances, it no longer needs anyone to be both. The modern solution to the danger of the sacred center is preemptively to desacralize its inhabitants, to "prehumiliate" them, as Doug Collins puts it. The term "celebrity" by which we designate our unheroic public figures reflects an increased proportion of resentment to adoration in our ever-ambivalent attitude toward the center. As a complement to this humiliated center, those outside the public eye can defend their post-victimary moral intuition against the victimary crowd in the confidence that they should expect no reward.

For Kierkegaard, moral perfection consists in appearing as much as possible like a bourgeois; Pascalís honnÍte homme (see Chronicle 26) deployed his greatest skill in not calling attention to himself. To find in todayís visibility-mad and victim-obsessed academy a possibility of emulating these exemplary models has helped me lay to rest the sense of institutional outrage I have felt for the past three years (see Chronicle 140). The often misplaced rationalization of the marketplace of ideas is a powerful force for conformity. In such circumstances, be an honor deserved or not, we are better off without it.

We may associate the moral integrity of the post-millennial era with a categorical imperative derived (as Kantís was not) from the scenic configuration of the originary hypothesis: act in such a way as to diminish--first locally, then, as far as possible, universally--the amount of resentment in the world. We would do best to devote ourselves to persons rather than victims, and lend our support to others who try to do likewise.

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Eric Gans / gans@humnet.ucla.edu
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