Heroes or Helpers

Language can be powerful. Name-calling can change a person’s identity, self-confidence, and actions. We’ve seen how language can lead people to be inhumane to each other, so it’s probably a good idea to pay attention to the words we choose to use.

I wonder if we would do better if we reduced our use of the word ‘hero.’ By calling cops heroes, are we telling them they get to act by a different set of rules? By labeling our police men and women ‘heroes,’ are we telling them to go seek out enemies to be vanquished?

What if, instead, we used the language of Mr. Rogers, and called such people, ‘helpers’?

What would that change? It’s subtle, but over time, I think it could have a powerful effect.

For one thing, using the word ‘helper’ widens and shifts our focus. The word illuminates not just the actor, but also the act of helping. It also highlights the victims even as it shifts the focus away from criminals. That would be a good thing. We tend to focus on the criminals, and we might take the wind out of their sails if instead, we focused on the helpers.

Also, the word ‘helper’ more accurately teases out and reinforces the actual qualities that we value so highly in our heroes. The helper assists the weak, protects the unwitting, maintains an awareness that keeps people safe. These are all things we want in our law enforcement and military.

The word ‘hero,’ on the other hand, can have the problematic effect of casting his or her mindset into one of doing battle. The concept of heroes, after all, comes from war. There are strong associations between the word ‘hero’ and warring in super hero movies (see? the word is in the title!), to war movies, to sci fi flicks. The problem is that war should be rare. It shouldn’t be a daily reality. However, once in the warring mindset, a hero tends to see front lines and bad guys everywhere, rather than seeing humans and citizens. It’s us vs them. It’s not conducive to respectful policing.

Once in battle, normal rules of society no longer apply. And so heroes may find it easy to justify cutting corners, or compromising constitutional rights. Never mind that some citizen might have a health problem, or may be in the cross hairs due to simple misunderstanding, or simply getting on the heroes nerves because he’s exercising his 4th amendment rights, or simply driving with a lot of cash to pay for a medical procedure. The hero doesn’t see a victim, or citizen. A hero sees a baddie. As a result, the hero might act with contempt or even malice. That’s not what we want. Not when we believe people deserve to be treated with a presumption of innocence. We’ve gone the other way.

The notion of hero also confers a sense of higher knowledge, of having a superior sense of what is actually right and wrong. But I don’t know that we want that mindset in our police forces. A sense that they know best, can lead them to willingly engage in confirmation bias, and justify tricking innocent people into giving confessions.

While heroes stand on pedestals, helpers are with us. Helpers are part of our team. They wouldn’t think of putting themselves above the law. They don’t conflate a sticky situation into a battle between good and evil. They see people. Helpers act with humanity, not impunity. Helpers treat others with respect, not contempt.

I’m not saying to never use the word hero. We don’t want to go around banning language. All I’m saying is to think before you say the word. When you want to call someone a hero, do you really mean to complement them for being a helper? If so, consider using that word instead.