In the ways we have found to talk about the Covid-19 pandemic, the language of heroism is almost as pervasive as that of the military campaign. In Britain, nurses, care workers, paramedics, cleaners and doctors are #NHSheroes.
Were anthropologists from another world to study the culture of the British archipelago right now, they might assume that the populace worshipped a cult called the NHS, noting how the initials are emblazoned on posters, scrawled on walls and pavements, and even cut into chalk grasslands. They might take notes on the rainbow emblem displayed in household windows (an apotropaic device, perhaps?). And they would certainly scrutinise a certain ritual: the moment when, every seven days, the populace emerges from their homes just before nightfall to applaud the frontline workers.
The word “hero” is slippery, its significance constantly on the move. Where once public discussion about a national crisis might have leaned towards ideas of duty, heroism is today’s dominant public virtue. Over the past 150 years or so it has proved an important means of constructing the idea of the perfect soldier – brave, masculine, self-sacrificing – and the language of heroism has certainly been deployed to add lustre to the ugly facts of conflict.
The idea of the heroic has also spread pretty generously outwards, well beyond the masculine and the military, at times veering towards the absurd. In an American airport last year, I studied a large display of photographs of the “heroes” who worked there, including the financial risk management director, who was quoted as saying: “I like being able to analyse the profitability of our events and provide information that is helpful to our task.” I am sure he does a highly professional job; “heroism” might be a stretch.
Hero is a Greek word – heros – and is indelibly associated with ancient myths, especially the Homeric epics. The heroes of the Iliad and the Odyssey, however, are not much like #NHSheroes. In the Iliad, Achilles is the ultimate Greek hero. He is touched with the divine – his mother is a goddess. His life is brutal and short. He is a mass killer. When his beloved Patroclus is killed, he goes on a vengeful rampage, choking the river Scamander with corpses. By modern standards he is a war criminal.
The resourceful, long-suffering Odysseus might seem, at first glance, to feel like a more attractive version of the Greek hero. On the other hand, his modus operandi appears to be one of deceit and trickery punctuated with moments of culpable arrogance, extreme violence and cowardice. When his fleet is attacked by cannibalistic giants, Odysseus orders his own ship’s crew to row away. The others are lost, with all hands. No messing around with “no man left behind”.
Language is unstable. It gathers new force, sheds old connotations. But it can be useful to step back from our familiar understanding of a word; it can help us see what work it is being asked to do in a particular context. Those hypothetical anthropologists might soon, when deepening their study, stumble across a paradox.
The NHS, they would discover, is not a wealthy cult; the equivalent of its temple treasuries are not heaped with gold. Many of the people who are clapping in the streets have voted for successive Conservative governments who have starved it of resources. Might the people’s clapping therefore be more complicated than an expression of simple praise for its “heroes”? Perhaps, for some, it might serve as a ritual expiation of guilt.
The anthropologists, if they asked the healthcare workers in question, might also find that many are deeply uncomfortable with their “heroic” status. One GP based in Edinburgh told me he understood the impulse to reach for such language in extreme times, but “the arrogation of it by the party of austerity makes me queasy”. A hospital doctor in the Midlands said: “On an individual level, staff did behave ‘heroically’ in the sense that almost without exception they got on with the job and accepted the risks.” But, he added: “The problem can be with the people who call the staff heroes. My neighbours who ‘clap for carers’ still held their VE Day party even when I begged them to be responsible and stay at home. So they weren’t prepared to make any real effort but it makes them feel better to clap.”
The danger of using the language of heroism is that it mutes critique and debate: heroes aren’t supposed to complain, or speak out about inadequate protective equipment or lack of testing capacity, or to point out what damage years of austerity have done to healthcare provision in the UK.
We shouldn’t expect heroism from healthcare workers, we should expect professionalism in a context of an adequately resourced, well-run service. As the Edinburgh GP says: “People do the job because of a sense of vocation and professionalism – not out of some heroic sense of sacrifice – and they want to be kept as safe as they possibly can.”
A GP based in Yorkshire goes out of her front door at 8pm on a Thursday – but only, she told me, out of politeness. She hates being called a “hero”. Her hard work on the job – what others regard as her heroism – is precisely what renders her unheroic to herself. “If I was a hero,” she says, “I would stand up and call out the government, but I am not, and I go to work and bumble on. A bit like the soldiers led by buffoons who were told to go over the top to be greeted by gunfire – except I am highly trained and should know better.”
• Charlotte Higgins is the Guardian’s chief culture writer