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Changing Language and Heroism

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Simone Biles

Simone Biles is a hero.

This statement would not have been controversial even two weeks ago. For many Americans the statement wouldn't have registered any meaning because the identity of Simone Biles was unknown. That is too bad.

Simone Biles is perhaps the greatest gymnast of all time. She has been labeled the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) by many in our culture, and even adopted that identity during a competition where she had a bedazzled goat on her uniform.

Every American should know her name because of the great feats of athleticism she has displayed on the national and international stage. She has multiple moves in gymnastics named after her (because she is the first woman to accomplish them in competition). Many of them have so many flips and twists that I cannot even follow them or count them when they are played back in slow motion.

And she has overcome obstacles in her life. She was born to Shanon Biles who was unable to care for her four children and all of them went into foster care. Her grandfather and his second wife took Simone and her sister in and then adopted them.

They chose to homeschool her in order to provide her more time to train in gymnastics - increasing training time from 20 hours a week to 32 hours a week. All of that training, combined with her incredible natural athleticism, has paid off. Her work in gymnastics has resulted in the most World Championship medals and Olympic medals won by any individual. (This is from Wikipedia.)

That life and accomplishment - with many acts of great bravery - makes Simone Biles a hero at just 24 years of age.

And yet to say that Simone Biles is a hero today is a controversial statement.

I blame the soundbite culture for that fact. In our society we want things to be quickly presented with clear conclusions. Our society wants universal rules for everyone. If Simone Biles is a hero, then everything she does must be heroic. Conversely, if Simone Biles does even one thing that is not heroic, then she isn't a hero.

This is really what the whole complaint about "cancel culture" is about, too. If a person does one thing that is awful, we must cancel everything about them and remove them from polite society. Because people can only be either awful or heroes. There is no room in our society for human frailty anymore.

All of this was brought into the limelight around Simone Biles at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games last week. Simone Biles was competing in the Women's Team All Around gymnastics contest. She was scheduled to participate in the Vault apparatus (a word I learned to use by watching the Olympics). She was to do two passes. After the first pass, which was not performed to the incredibly high expectations she is under, she stepped out of the competition and spent the remaining time at the Team event on the sidelines cheering for her fellow Americans.

At the time she said that she was not in the correct frame of mind and was not having fun with the competition. Later explanations about her reasoning have been propounded by pundits on news outlets and social media. Those explanations ranged from calling her action cowardice to - what caught my attention most - heroism.

Simone Biles stepping out of the competition was "heroic". That is what multiple outlets have claimed. It is what so many of my friends on Facebook have said.

What is heroic? What does heroism mean?

In the past twenty years, superhero movies have risen to dominate the Box Office. Heroism has been a theme for many of the top grossing movies for most of my life. So people know what a hero looks like (at least, they know what a comic book hero looks like when adapted to the big screen). Knowing what is heroic has been presumptively known for a long time.

And the common definition of heroism supports the presumption.

Heroism is "putting others first, even at your own peril." That's the first hit from Google.

This is what most people have thought of as "heroic" since the ancient Greek word was first adapted into English.

So what was it about Simone Biles stepping out of the Team event that was "heroic?"

It was not putting others first.

She was putting her own health first. Perhaps that was prudent. Perhaps that was even wise. But I do not think it was "heroic."

Yet I have been told again and again that Simone Biles was heroic for stepping out of the competition.

She was "brave" for standing up for her own mental health.

That's another definition of "heroism." From the same website defining heroism comes this:

19th Century lawyer Robert Green Ingersoll said it well: “When the will defies fear, when duty throws the gauntlet down to fate, when honor scorns to compromise with death — that is heroism.”

Great bravery can be "heroic" even if it is not putting others first. If someone acts with courage in the face of peril, they have acted heroically.

The life of Simone Biles shows that she has done this. That is why I do not hesitate to call her a hero.

I do not think everything she does is brave. I remember that she is a human being.

Perhaps Simone Biles was brave to step out of the competition at the Olympics. It can be hard to stand against public expectations.

Was it "great bravery" to the point that it should be classified as "heroic?"

I cannot go that far.

She was not at the same risk as the Soviet gymnast Elena Mukhina (whom one woman compared her to on Facebook). The Soviet gymnastic coaches had high hopes for Elena and pressured her to perform dangerous moves. After she broke her leg the coaches did not allow her (against her protests) to heal properly.

Grievously Elena Mukhina broke her neck in practices before the 1980 Olympic games and was permanently paralyzed. (This is from Wikipedia.)

Was Simone Biles under similar threats or coercion as Elena Mukhina? Was it even theoretically possible that the coaches would compel her to compete after she pulled out?

Was it "great bravery" for Simone Biles to stand down from the competition?

I think it may have been prudent. It may have been wise. It may have been brave.

And what if it was brave? Does that force us to consider Kerri Strug as a victim, or worse, as a coward?

Kerri Strug is the gymnast who famously landed a one-legged vault at the 1996 Olympic Games during the Team All Around event. (The two cases - Simone Biles and Kerri Strug - are similar in many ways.)

After an awkward landing during the first vault, Strug went ahead with the second vault and landed it. Her face contorted with pain and she fell over - clearly injured.

Her actions have been defined as "heroic" for decades. (The YouTube channel of the Olympics featured her vault in their countdown to the 2016 Olympics.)

Now our society is considering her actions from 1996 with "a new focus."

One user on Facebook wrote about showing the Strug vault to his daughters and how their response was concern and even anger that she vaulted the second time. He describes Strug as looking "terrified" before the second vault. Watching this vault now made him "sick." His conclusion: Strug should have been protected from the pressure of the coaches and country rooting her on to pursue the Gold medal. (See post from Facebook here.)

Was Kerri Strug a victim or a hero?

The meaning of the term "hero" seems to be shifting and changing rapidly. What was easy to answer for decades is not so clear now. The society has changed and is changing. Language is changing.

"Standing up for mental health is heroism."

So I read on Facebook (but cannot now find it to attribute it).

This is a new and different definition of heroism. Heroism used to be about putting others first to your own peril. Heroism used to be about great bravery in the face of challenges. Now standing up for mental health is heroic.

At least that is the claim. Perhaps the word will be used in that manner across society. I do not think our society really uses the word that way, yet. It is only beginning to be argued.

People are arguing that heroism should include standing up for your own mental health. I disagree.

That change in language may come. It may not come. I will argue against it.

Whether the word changes to include that meaning or not, there is something else happening which is infuriating.

One Facebook friend suggested that lots of those who doubt that Simone Biles' actions were "heroic" are acting out of racism.

I'm still seeing loads of people saying Simone Biles isn't "heroic" for deciding not to compete. Setting aside the fact that choosing to focus on your mental health is indeed a heroic decision that takes mountains of guts and character, I think that a lot of the backlash we're seeing boils down to racism. Lots of white folks aren't used to, and simply don't like it, when empowered Black people tell them "no."

This is absolutely infuriating.

Instead of making an argument that heroism should include standing up for mental health, this Facebook user has declared that it does mean this and that loads of people who disagree are likely acting out of racism.

It is illogical. Name calling as a way to prove a point is always illogical.

It is incredibly damaging.

How can we engage in a real argument about the meaning of heroism if we label lots of those who disagree with us as racists? We can not really live together if this is where we immediately jump to in the face of any disagreement.

The word heroism has been stable in its meaning for decades. That definition never included standing up for mental health before. Now the argument is being made for the first time. Is it fair to say that loads of people who do not use that newly argued definition are acting out of racism?

Not at all.

This is not the first time I have seen new definitions and meanings for words used as the basis for calling another person names.

It was just last year (2020) when Amy Coney Barrett used the term "sexual preference" in her Senate Confirmation Hearings as she was nominated to become a Supreme Court Justice. One dictionary updated the definition of the term to include a connotation of "offensive" after that hearing.

The ire that Amy Coney Barrett received because she had not adopted the most recent changes (or even future changes) to language was insane. By using this term to say she had never and would never discriminate on the basis of "sexual preference" she had incriminated herself of homophobia in the eyes of many in the LGBTQ community. Others thought the outrage over the term was misplaced.

Saying that Amy Coney Barrett is "homophobic" because she used the term "sexual preference" is similar to the way my friend on Facebook says lots of those who disagree about the meaning of "heroic" may be acting out of racism.

The new meaning of the word must be applied immediately. Any delay in applying the new meaning of the term indicates some moral failing.

If you do not immediately adopt the new definition of "heroic" - meaning standing up for mental health - then you are likely a racist.

This is madness.

It is not true.

How can we survive as a society if any slight disagreement - or even delay in adopting new linguistic changes - is used as evidence of grave moral failings?

I beg my friend to abandon this insulting and illogical argumentation. People who say Simone Biles was not heroic at the Tokyo 2020 games are not presumptively racist. They are using the classic (and still unchanged) definition of the term "heroic."

Not everyone who uses older definitions is morally flawed. Stop, I beg of you, leveling serious moral accusations against your neighbors based on very minor disagreements.


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