Heroism is Bad for Community

“The victim-rescuer-persecutor syndrome occurs frequently in human relationships of all kinds and is common in many helping relationships,” writes Lee Ann Hoff (Hoff, 2001, p. 121). This is a common phenomenon: when a well-intentioned person tries to help somebody else, the person receiving assistance often becomes considered a victim, both by themselves and by their helper.

The implication of seeing yourself as a helper or a rescuer is that your self-description becomes dependent on the existence of a disempowered, helpless, or victimized other person. (This is especially a problem for social agencies who must promote the fact they are helping ‘disadvantaged’ people in order to justify their funding.)

Without victims, the rescuing role would be obsolete, and therefore nullified. Complementary victims are required for every person who fancies themselves a hero. A hero with no one to save is no hero at all.

Juxtapose the notion of ‘helping people’ (and thus potentially, inadvertently victimizing them) with the essence of the word community. A group of people in common unity exists precisely because none of them are victims, villains or heroes. Only within this commonality can the corrosive power triad be avoided. In fact, the common unity disintegrates into a power structure as soon as any single point of this triangle is established within the group.

Your closest circle of human relationships is comprised of individuals who are neither victims, villains or heroes towards you, nor towards one another. Where the power triad exists, common unity is altogether impossible.

Perhaps heroism is bad for community?

Or perhaps true heroism comes not in our rushing to the aid of a victim in their plight, but rather joining in common unity with them. The most effective way to keep a needy person needy is to treat them like a needy person. The most effective way to “de-victimize” someone is to include them in a tribe of unvictimized individuals who refuse to abide by the power dynamics of the victim, villain and hero triangle.

Perhaps the story of victims, villains and heroes is just simply the rhetoric of heroes? Saving victims and naming villains sure goes a long way to justifying one’s own particular valour and ethos. In fact, anyone who would choose to be a hero must begin by identifying a victim. Gary Harper writes, “A villain is a misunderstood hero; a hero is a self-righteous villain.“ (Harper, 2004, p. 1) Or, in the damning words of Eric Hoffer,

The burning conviction that we have a holy duty toward others is often a way of attaching our drowning selves to a passing raft. What looks like giving a hand is often a holding on for dear life. Take away our holy duties and you leave our lives puny and meaningless. There is no doubt that in exchanging a self-centered for a selfless life we gain enormously in self-esteem. The vanity of the selfless, even those who practice utmost humility, is boundless. (Hoffer, 1951, p. 14-15)

Reconsider what it means to help others. Are your altruistic actions founded on the doctrine of heroism: “I will save you”? Alternatively, instead of being a hero, what does it mean in your context to be a builder of common unity? (That is, after all, what community is all about, right?) What would it look like if you were to ‘commune with’ others instead of trying to ‘rescue’ them?

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Politics is Toxic. Get Over it?

There’s a popular narrative that goes along these lines: the population is disillusioned with all the negativity of schoolyard, partisan politics. Therefore, if politicians would just clean up their act, citizens would re-engage with democratic process.

But what are the grounds for this proposition? Has there ever been a period in history when the political arena has not been engulfed in backbiting, backrooms, and backscratching?

Democratic governance has never had a golden age. And it never will. It can’t. And even if we achieved this hypothetical state of democratic glory, we could just as easily lose it all again in four years. That’s the nature of democracy. We love democracy because it guarantees the impermanence of our governors. But it is this very impermanence that guarantees a permanent state of scandal. The proposition that we might one day arrive at a nirvana of enlightened, competent, and permanently rational leadership is not a rational belief to hold, nor to propagate.

This discussion about voter apathy and disillusionment has nothing to do with the unscrupulous antics and stupidity of politicians. It has to do with a fundamentally flawed expectation and explanation of political process. We elect politicians in order to slug it out. Equilibrium in a democracy is not universal agreement or a collective love affair with an ideal (fictitious) politician. No, it’s a tedious combat between opposing ideological agendas. That’s the point of democracy: self-governance requires internal conflict. This is an intrinsic feature of any self-organizing system.

Our participation in our governance should have nothing to do with peddling, promising, or advocating a safe, sanctified, and sanitized version of democracy. It can never exist.

So why are voters disengaged? Maybe they’ve been told their governance it is only worth engaging in to the extent that politicians are worthy, upstanding, and moral role models. Let’s drop this foolishness. The underlying premise of democracy is that we are all sovereign, which means that any single one of us can choose to assert ourselves in the leadership arena. The point of democracy is not that we have an aesthetically and emotionally “pleasant arena” for making collective decisions. The point is that we govern ourselves. This means taking a few bruises in the arena, and accepting the fact that corruption in democracy is as sure as the wetness of rain. If you want a supreme Superman to protect you from the harsh manipulation and posturing of statecraft, stop looking in democracy, my friend.

Democracy is messy. Let’s drop the rhetoric that people will get involved if we clean it up. This belief is counterproductive to the vision of a citizenry who takes their own governance seriously. Lying to ourselves (and those so-called “disillusioned” citizens) about the nature of democracy is only making rampant “dis-engagement” more acute.

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Primus inter pares

It is incredibly challenging to lead people who have freely given their consent to follow.

A man who becomes a prince by favour of the people finds himself standing alone, and he has near him either no one or very few not prepared to take orders. (Machiavelli, The Prince IX)

You are assigned to a working committee. Your committee, in turn, is assigned the responsibility of appointing its own chair. So here you are, sitting around a table with your peers. Each of you brings fairly equal abilities to the group and you are all competent to the task at hand. However, you yourself are nominated to serve as chair, and the motion carries. You are now, effectively, the leader of the group, as chosen by your colleagues.

On the surface, situations like this seem ideal: what better opportunity to lead others towards a common objective than to have their ‘buy in’ and vote right from the start? However, as many of us have learned, influencing your equals is one of the greatest challenges of leadership.

Consider democracy, for example. The principle core of democracy is the idea that the people — not aristocrats, overlords, or oligarchs — are sovereign. In their sovereignty, the populous thus elects leaders to rule in turn. However, once elected, the ruler finds herself in an inherent contradiction: how do you lead with authority in a nation that believes every citizen has an equal share in their sovereignty? How do you rule people who are organized around the belief that all rule? How does the ‘class’ of leadership function in a society that explicitly states that power does not belong to a special class? (Kane & Haig 2012)

Whether elected to chair a committee or oversee a country, the peer-selected leader faces an enormous credibility challenge. When leading equals, legitimacy is under constant review and consideration: ‘Hey, any one of us also has as much right to lead as you do.’ Superiors can appeal to rank, the wealthy can purchase compliance, and tyrants can utilize their military, but the leader who is only the ‘first among equals’ has nothing but the temporary, fragile consent of others, who only cautiously surrender their own autonomy in order to follow. This is a recipe for skepticism and scrutiny. The peer-leader is always on shaky ground.

In these contexts, leadership is synonymous with persuasion. We might even imagine that leadership is persuasion. There is only one way to lead your peers: you must inspire and convince them to see, think, and behave differently. If you are in a position to just bark out orders and expect results, you are leading underlings, not equals. Thus, the leadership of equals represents the height of leadership itself, because followers who are free to choose their leader also have the option to simply stop following whenever they choose.

Today, if you set out to lead among your equals, remember that you exert leadership only to the extent that you inform the perspectives, hopes, goals, and (ultimately) the actions of others.

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My Political Campaign Platform

Press conference questions and answers

If elected, how will you address issues relating to the economy, racism, the environment, poverty, corruption, unemployment, immigration, foreign policy, and the deficit?

I don’t know the answer to this question. These issues are far too multifaceted, nuanced, and entangled for me to develop an effective course of action on my own. I would be living a lie if I pretended to have solutions: I do not possess expert, superhuman knowledge about every aspect of society. If elected to office I am duty bound to consult and learn from those who have have devoted themselves to understanding these issues from every possible angle, and even moreso those whose lives have been directly affected by them. And, furthermore, I will seek out the strongest arguments from every opposing side, which means that I will likely never feel absolutely confident about my decisions, even after I have made them.

Hey, that’s not an answer at all. Don’t you need a mandate from the electorate? You need to give us some clues as to what you want to do. How will you vote when policy is introduced to tackle these issues?

You tell me. You are not electing an automaton to vote on every tabled motion for the next four years like a mindless robot. If representative democracy means anything more than just casting a ballot once a year, then you are electing your interface with the government, not a readymade list of prefabricated decisions. If I knew, right now, how I was going to vote on every issue, then you would essentially be electing me on the promise to not think for four years.

Damn, this is frustrating! Ok, let’s try this question instead: do you politically align more with the left or the right?

I am a pragmatist, not a partyist. I care about decisions in light of their consequences, rather than their adherence to arbitrary, make-believe categories of ideology. Therefore, I align with people who do their best to weigh both sides of every argument, and who are brutally and critically accepting of the fact they are easily blinded by their own biases. These people are my ‘party’, regardless of what colours they wear or which side of room they sit on.

So, basically you want us to elect you into office even though you have no answers, make no promises, and claim no affiliation?

Politics is relational. Ultimately, you are not electing a campaign, an ideal, or a platform here — you are electing a person. Campaigns, ideals, and platforms do not sit behind desks or raise their hands to vote, people do. I cannot see the future: I cannot tell you what issues we will face as a community, nor how we will address them when they arise. Right now the question is not, What are we going to do in the next four years? but more importantly, How are we going to make decisions in the next four years? I will do my best to represent my constituency by listening and learning, and then listening and learning over and over again. My intent is to be open to all sides, continually examining new evidence, and always willing to hear counterarguments. If democracy literally implies that the masses have a voice, then we must all keep talking along the way.

You know that successfully elected candidates usually have pithy little slogans that relate to prospective voters, like ‘Stop the gravy train!’, ‘Zero percent tax increases!’, ‘Change’, or ‘Better Together’. Is there a way you could describe your campaign in a way that makes sense to people who like concise and simple goals?

No. Because the issues and challenges that politics must address are not simple problems. Just watch the news: these challenges are more complicated than any single candidate, political party, or even government can solve all by themselves… so the solutions are probably beyond anything a single marketing department can develop!

Do you seriously think anyone will vote for you on this, um, ‘platform’? You do not seem to know what you are doing.

Do you think anyone knows what they are doing? Do you believe that magical, silver-bullet solutions exist? And if so, do you believe that political candidates are the ones who just happen to be walking around with the answers miraculously buried inside their heads? Do you think that candidates running for office are demigods? Do not vote for me because you think I have the answers — vote for me because you trust me, as another human being, to humbly and tenaciously collaborate with you for the next four years as we do our best to forge a way forward.

Without an explicit campaign platform — and without actually saying anything concrete about the issues at hand — it seems impossible to imagine that anyone could trust you enough to vote for you.

Obviously people should only vote for me if they trust me. But I’m not going to stand here and lie, pretending that I have omniscient understanding of the issues or special divination of the future. In fact, if people don’t vote for me, I’ll be quite relieved. The pressure of a term in office seems overwhelming; the scale of the task before us is daunting and exhausting. The truth of the matter is that I am often aggravated by committee work, I loathe public appearances, I could not care less about photo ops, and I’m chronically uncomfortable speaking with the press and media. Oh, and what does shaking hands like a celebrity and swooning over babies for publicity have to do with anything, anyway? Why does all this sound like a celebrity contest? Come to think of it, there are not many aspects of this prospective appointment that I am actually looking forward to. (And besides, after four years of trying my best to listen to all sides, how do you think this will likely end? I will probably be unable to adequately appease any single ‘voting bloc’ enough to be reelected again, which means this whole thing is probably going to land me in a fairly lonely, alienated place, politically speaking.)

This is absolutely ridiculous. Nobody is ever going to vote for you! You don’t sound like a leader at all. We aren’t electing a workshop facilitator in this election, you know.

But is our current model and expectation of political leadership effective? If the status quo of leadership — as manifested by the rhetoric-charged partisanship around us — is our working definition, then I propose that it is high time to reconsider our narrative and mythology of ‘leadership’ itself. Our current expectation of leadership does not appear to be helping us get beyond gridlock anyway, so let’s revisit the very concept. I am happy to run not as a ‘leader’, but as a facilitator.

Well, good luck on your, er, ‘campaign’ of listening and facilitation. What a joke. I’m guessing this will be your last press conference! You’ve promised nothing to the people.

You do, in truth, have one very explicit promise from me: I promise to do my best. That is all I can promise. The question is not, Do all politicians lie? but rather, Can a politician be elected without lying? Can a person run for office without pretending to be something they are not… or have we created an electoral system and governance model that systematically requires us to jettison our integrity in order to play an increasingly irrelevant political game?

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