Ed Blog | Heroes, antiheroes & our obsession with both

Our new cover image on Facebook and Twitter (also above) presents the images of 30 people we consider antiheroes, for the fact they have chosen to challenge norms and live differently. Some will be familiar, others are relatively unknown. All of them represent far larger communities of people who also share their struggle, or who they have stepped up to bat on behalf of.

I hesitate to call them heroes, because many aren’t yet considered such by the mainstream. Some, like Nelson Mandela, Gandhi and Maya Angelou are now widely admired, and rightly so. But for much of their lives they weren’t applauded. Nelson Mandela spent most of his life in protest, or in prison. Ghandi also spent much of his life challenging elite, racial hierarchies, and in prison. Maya Angelou, now revered for her wordsmithery, battled racial — and gender — prejudice too.

“We glorify revolutions past, but maintain a nervous distance from current examples of inequity.”

In the introduction to the book Revolutionary Women: a Book of Stencils, Tui Gordon discusses the commodification of struggle. Icons like Che Guevara spend most of their lives on the fringes, or overtly suppressed, then at some point we decide they’re ok and start banging their image on t-shirts. We glorify revolutions past — feel indignant that apartheid was ever a thing, or that women couldn’t vote in the West — but maintain a nervous distance from current examples of inequity like LGBT rights and poverty.

Yet we love an antihero. Pop culture is all about the underdog, the outcast who overcomes the odds. They offer hope to the hopeless and downtrodden, they show it’s possible to cry foul — and win — when power is abused. And they often do it with the support of just a small, courageous few.

We admire struggle, after the fact. Why are we so hesitant to engage with it while it’s happening? Because we don’t have time? Because we’re disillusioned? Or simply because we don’t know what we can do to help, or where to start?

If you’re like me, it’s any one of these reasons at different points. It’s a lot easier to observe — and, to be true, sometimes totally inappropriate — to jump into a struggle that’s not our own.

Proclaiming opinion without thinking it through can be as unhelpful, if not more so, than saying nothing at all. It’s one of the reasons I share my own perspective so infrequently on here. But I think it’s important to test our beliefs by acting according to them, to be bold yet flexible in how we interact with the world. And to not let the idea of changing our worldview terrify us.

“It’s important to test our beliefs by acting according to them, to be bold yet flexible in how we interact with the world.”

It’s a lot easier to fit the world to the norms we live within, but I don’t think we can get away with living in silos anymore. Globalisation means that how we live in one part of the world does affect the wellbeing of people in others. And ultimately, as the impacts of climate change, or current migrant crises in Europe and the US are showing, sometimes those effects can come back around.

As Evelyn said in this recent post, ‘”We all have social justice issues which speak to our moral and ethical positions.” Don’t jump on a bandwagon just because it’s trending, but if something doesn’t sit right with you, don’t be afraid to find out what’s at the root of that discomfort.

Whether it’s contributing your skills to help a community group, hitting the streets to join a protest or simply educating yourself further about an issue, this is me encouraging you to engage with struggles that resound with you as they are happening.

As a small start, why not join us on Instagram as we send a high five to some of the people we admire? To view the full set of our antihero images, care of the excellent James Evans, come join us on Facebook or Twitter.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.