We have a new set of heroes to celebrate

Beyond filmy superheroes (we have more than enough of those), we, as a society, usually brand those who go above and beyond their call of duty as ‘heroes’. Police, Doctors, Nurses become heroes as long as we are not blaming them for either excesses or negligence.

A ‘hero’ or a ‘superhero’ implies choice; someone who consciously chose to perform something for the benefit of others, and often to their own detriment.

Even if you argue that doctors are compensated adequately for their service, the same cannot be said about Police and nurses, to some extent. And putting them on a hero pedestal is our way to compensate our collective guilt, while we enjoy the fruits of their service.

The US is celebrating National Nurses Week from May 6-12. The New York Times had 4 full-page ads to thank nurses, yesterday.

May 12 is also International Nurses Day (anniversary of Florence Nightingale’s birth).

A full-page ad in the San Francisco Chronicle yesterday helpfully informs us that 2020 is the 200th anniversary of Florence Nightingale!

I’m sure Indian brands are planning huge online campaigns this year to mark the day, even if they hadn’t particularly gone to town about it before this year. In context, here’s something from The Times of India late last year.

I wouldn’t be surprised if our Prime Minister remembers Nurses Day this year, either through tweets or through a Mann Ki Baat special. I did look up his tweets from May 12 in the previous years and could not find any mention of nurses at least in 2019 and 2018.

But, as I had mentioned earlier, medical and law enforcement professionals know what they are getting into. They are informed about the kind of situations they may face, even if they may not be necessarily fully prepared for it. But the point is, there is a history and they are aware. It is then a choice for them to make.

This year, a new set of heroes have also emerged due to the pandemic, mostly consisting of assorted people working in the front-line. These heroes did not choose to become heroes in our eyes – they were hoisted as heroes even if they had no say in it.

E-commerce delivery professionals.
Drivers.
Kirana store owners.
Departmental store clerks.
And so on.

The ‘hero’/’superhero’ narrative is a framing device, in this case. From one set of people who have an inherent interest in keeping up the status quo, mounted on another set of people with very limited choice, against their will, in order to motivate them and keep them in good spirits.

There is a lot going on with celebrating them together as heroes. There is no doubt that all these professionals are putting in their best efforts even as they work amidst serious health risks.

These newly-anointed heroes haven’t been adequately prepped for such risky situations. Drivers, delivery professionals or departmental store clerks perhaps do not have a choice but to continue working because it is a matter of their livelihood. If they were given a choice to sit at home doing nothing (they cannot work from home!) or go out and continue working and get paid, they would at least have to make that choice.

But sitting at home doing nothing implies that they would not get paid. So, it’s not really a choice – it’s an impossible choice or a Hobson’s choice where only one thing is being really offered.

To mount those professionals who are subtly forced into labor for lack of choice as heroes is a tool by us, the privileged, to motivate the front-line personnel to continue what they are doing so that the supplies don’t cease, and we assuage our guilt through that.

Demonstrating gratitude is one thing. Mounting them on a pedestal without giving them any other choice is entirely another.

Even the gratitude-showing acts are being looked up differently now if they are becoming habits.

The pedestal is getting bigger every day. Mattel has even launched ‘Thank You Heroes’ collectible toys honoring frontline workers.

The thought is indeed noble, but at some point, the children who’d happen to be the owners of these toys would do well to wonder if the delivery driver or grocery store personnel had a say in choosing to be a hero.

Given how Karnataka state has literally barred migrants from going out of the state (back to their home state) after the builder’s lobby met the Chief Minister, I wouldn’t be surprised if construction workers are also mounted as ‘heroes’ and put up on a pedestal.

This framing is presumed to be a good motivational tool for the target audience, but an invisible and benign whip at the hands of everyone who stands to benefit from the continued work. Observe how stopping of trains to avoid migrant labor from leaving is framed as “it will help (them)”!

Related: Doug Stephens, a retail veteran, writes a more acerbic piece on this ‘hero’ framing. The full article is here.

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