Hero or Villain: a Useful Way to Judge?

June 20, 2020, 10:25 AM UTC

There is no doubt who this week’s hero is: it’s Marcus Rashford. And there’s little doubt who’s the villain: Andrew Banks, the guy who was filmed urinating next to the memorial of PC Keith Palmer, the police officer killed in a terrorist attack at Westminster in 2017.

Hero and villain are categories we like to slot people into. They are categories politicians steer carefully and fearfully between. Of course they fancy themselves being regarded as heroes but they know that public judgment can be fickle and can toss them from the pinnacle of heroism to the pit of villainy in a trice. So why are we so keen to identify heroes and villains? Is it a good way to make judgments about politicians? Or does it say more about us who do the judging than about those who are judged?

Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United footballer, is this week’s hero not because of heroism on the field but because, seemingly single-handed, he got the government to do a U-turn and cough up for free school meals for poor children over the summer holidays. Only those who think poor children shouldn’t have anything to eat (if there are any such people) or those who think the government’s already spending too much of our money and shouldn’t be such a soft touch to pressure to spend more think he is anything other than a hero. (The latter group certainly exists but, because of the hero-worship, are keeping schtum.) As for Mr Rashford, he seems understandably rather to like the status of hero and is reported to be considering which white horse he should mount next.

The case of Andrew Banks is perhaps a little less clear-cut. The initial response to his behaviour was certainly one of outrage. Tobias Ellwood, the MP who, back in 2017, had rushed to the aid of the dying PC Palmer described Banks’s action in relieving himself at the site of the memorial to the killing as the most ‘abhorrent’ image he’d seen in a testing week of such atrocities. But it turned out that things weren’t quite as they first seemed. Banks was not making a calculated gesture of abuse. He was the worse for wear. He’d drunk sixteen pints overnight, had not been to bed, quite probably didn’t know where he was relieving himself, may well have never even heard of Keith Palmer and, once he became aware of what he had done, handed himself into the police, pleaded guilty to outraging public decency and claimed to feel fully ashamed of himself.

So, an idiot – certainly. A moron – quite probably. But a villain who deserved being sent to prison for fourteen days?  Some will say ‘most definitely’, but others will be less sure.

Of course there are always individuals who are undoubtedly heroes (Keith Palmer was one of them) and others who are undoubtedly villains (fill in your own names). But the interesting question is why we seem to need both. And at times of crisis we seem to find them. During the current one we raised nurses and doctors on to the hero’s plinth and also Capt (now Sir) Tom Moore, the centenarian who walked round and round his garden raising thirty million quid for the NHS in the process.

In his play The Life of Galileo, Bertolt Brecht has a character exclaim: ‘Unhappy the land that has no heroes!’ But why do we need them? One answer may be that the existence of heroes reassures us that there is good in the world and that therefore, even in dark hours – perhaps especially then – there is hope. It may also be that by elevating people to the status of heroes and praising them we somehow share in their projected virtue.

More interesting is why we also need villains. The need perhaps derives from the impulse to respond to adversity by asking, as the very first question: ‘Who’s to blame?’ It’s a useful question because by asking it we are confirming, by implication, that it couldn’t possibly be us. The less prejudiced reaction to things having gone wrong would be to ask not ‘Who’s to blame?’ but ‘What’s the cause?’ The answer to that question might, of course, involve no blame at all but, at the same time, it might incriminate us too: what we may have done or not done might have been part of the cause of the trouble. It’s easier to dodge all that by setting up the box called ‘Villain’ and then looking around for obvious candidates to shove into it.

I’ve been thinking about all this not so much because of Marcus Rashford or Andrew Banks but more in relation to Boris Johnson. This feels a bit like a turning point when he is in the process of being converted from hero to villain.

Some readers will immediately protest that this is a ludicrous notion on the grounds that the Prime Minister has always been a villain and always will be. This is the man (as, for example, staunch Remainers would see it) who cynically backed Brexit not out of conviction but to serve his own ends, who led a grossly deceitful campaign to bring it about and who is now leading us to the ruin of a No-deal future simply because it suits him and his own narrow interests to do so. A better textbook case of villainy could hardly be fund.

At the other extreme, of course, Mr Johnson is the epitome of the hero. He was the man who did successfully ‘get Brexit done’; who, against expectations led the Tory Party to a thumping majority, and who rescued Britain from years of political stalemate, launching it into a future in which it could start to think again about things other than Europe.

Those are the two entrenched camps who, for contrary reasons, will wonder why I suggest Mr Johnson’s fortunes may be about to shift from heroism to villainy. My hunch is based not on them but on the large expanse of public opinion that lies between these two camps.

In that large space there are still many who see Mr Johnson if not exactly as a hero, at least as someone who has had thrust upon him a heroic task. He has found himself, out of the blue, confronting a health and economic crisis the scale of which has not been seen in living memory. And then he has had to lead the fight on both fronts when he himself has been so horribly weakened by the adversary that has been the cause of it all in the first place.

This is certainly the stuff of heroic story-telling: the dauntless knight, wounded to the brink of death but fighting on regardless. In the context of such a way of telling the story, Mr Johnson has had at least one foot in the hero’s box.

So why might he be on the point of being tipped down into villainy? Quite simply because things aren’t going well.

I hardly need to list the evidence: the third-highest national mortality rates in the world, the slowness to order the lockdown, the lack of preparedness with personal protective equipment, especially for exposed medical staff, the scandal of the care homes, the botched reopening of schools, the dithering over two-metre or one-metre social distancing. And the latest: the collapse of Britain’s so-called “world beating” tracking system, so important if the virus returns with a venture come winter.

It’s easier to ask what’s gone right? The answer: not much.

The next question should, perhaps, be: what’s the explanation for those failures? Instead ot tends to become:  ‘Who’s to blame?’ And the answer to that is inevitably: the government. So Boris Johnson becomes the villain.

But is that fair?

If instead of asking the ‘Who’s to blame?’ question we ask the ‘what’s the cause?’ question, we might well come up with a specific reason for each of the things that has gone wrong. Indeed the government spends much of its time providing these reasons. But unless it could be shown that the root of all this maladministration lay in ministers behaving exclusively in a self-serving manner rather than honestly trying to do their best for the country (not wholly unimaginable with politicians), then the failures would have to be put down to sheer incompetence rather than villainy. Incompetence is bad enough and politicians in government should pay the price. But that means voting them out of office rather than rushing to denounce them as villains.

Yet we shall.   And if we end up with the virus taking off again, and a second wave of infections and deaths, then Mr Johnson will certainly be held to blame and will be the villain of the piece even if the actual cause of the pandemic’s revival turned out be us, for flouting the advice to stay at home and save lives and instead dashing off in hordes to the parks and the beaches just as soon as the sun came out.

In short, are we unfair to politicians, asking the impossible of them and then turning them into villains when they fail? In Brecht’s play, after one character has made the remark I’ve already quoted about how unhappy is the land that has no heroes, another character replies: ‘No. Unhappy the land that needs heroes’. Perhaps we might add: ‘And unhappy the land that needs villains.’

What’s your view? Do you think we are too quick to judge people as heroes or villains or not?  Why do you think we do so? Do you see Boris Johnson in either category or neither? Which way, if any, is he heading? And, in general, do you think we are too ready to attribute blame to politicians or do they deserve whatever we throw at them?

Let us know what you think.

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