Who’s the Unlikely Hero?


For HumanistNetworkNews.org
Sept. 2, 2009

A Canadian politician recently characterized Donald Marshall as "an unlikely hero." Marshall, an Aboriginal Canadian who was wrongly convicted of murder and subsequently set free after years of frustrating work on his behalf, died on Aug. 6, a victim of cancer. After he was freed, he set about working to help other people and certainly deserves the accolade, hero. An unlikely hero? I have to take exception.

Who is an unlikely hero and, question begged, who is a likely hero? The word, hero, is an absolute. It is diminished, rather than enhanced by modifiers.

People do what they have to do under the circumstances. Sometimes this involves putting their own lives in danger or even sacrificing their life for others. At other times this involves the kind of quiet dignity and courage that Marshall demonstrated. Why would he be considered more unlikely to be a hero than someone else?

Did his aboriginality make him less likely to be a hero? Or did his unfortunate treatment by a flawed justice system? Either reason would be a case of stereotyping?

One of the central principles of humanism requires that we work to improve the lot of our fellow human beings and other beings on the planet. When in the course of such work, one makes an extraordinary personal sacrifice or demonstrates exceptional courage in the face of adversity, we consider that person to be a hero.

Who then is a likely hero? Should that person be white?  Relatively wealthy? Well connected?

Perhaps the term, likely hero, applies to those people who are in a profession whose members put themselves in danger frequently – firefighters, police officers and soldiers. But, these people are trained and expected to put themselves in harm's way. So if they do something that would be extraordinary for the rest of us, they would not be considered likely heroes, but just people doing their job. Who wants to explain that to the families of firefighters who have given their lives to save others?

The term, unlikely hero, falls into the same category as all the other thoughtless stereotypical expressions that seem to have become acceptable because people do not consider their origin. Expressions, for example, that use people's religion, race or nationality as a verb – "gyp someone", "Jew someone", "Welsh on a deal", are unacceptable once we remember what they mean. Equally unfortunate is the tendency in English Canada to apologize for swearing by saying, "Excuse my French." thereby defaming French as a language.

None of these sentiments fits with humanist principles. I know that being politically correct sometimes get out of hand, but there are obvious boundaries. When one expresses surprise that a member of a particular group could be a hero, those boundaries are crossed.

Calling someone an unlikely hero is a thoughtless equivalent to complimenting people for the dignity with which they ride at the back of the bus. Heroes are heroes. The word, an absolute in its own right, is the only accolade they need.





Doug Thomas is an English teacher and novelist, an agnostic member of SOFREE (Society of Ontario Freethinkers), and an active member of the Humanist Association of Canada. He is also Managing Editor of Canadian Freethinker.