Why the hero narrative in human professions is damaging — A Freire perspective

The human professions exist to challenge inequality, advocate with others, teach, care and all the other things that they do day in, day out. However, to label those people as ‘superheroes’ or to suggest that what anyone does in these sectors is heroic, serves only to intensify oppression or maintain the status quo. I am an avid reader of Freire and drawing on his work and the work of others who have applied his theory of a critical pedagogy allows us to break down why it is such a damaging standpoint that not only damages those subject to being ‘saved’ but also those doing the ‘saving’.

‘Doing to’ vs Solidarity

A hero narrative fuels the ‘done to’ approach to supporting people. They are ‘done to’ and in turn, they become ‘better’. This is a necessary process to fulfil the hero narrative. The person who comes in to save the day, without whom, the other would be doomed.

Freire had us think about this in the form of charity. A person doing for someone else. ‘Doing to’, as a concept, furthers oppression, by providing something that is just enough to keep people in their place. It maintains the social order, or the status quo. Through this lens, the person doing the saving is the oppressor and liberation becomes an impossibility. It pushes the dominant, oppressor view of the world on other people — Assuming their version of ‘better’ is a common held view.

Discovering himself to be an oppressor may cause considerable anguish, but it does not necessarily lead to solidarity with the oppressed. Rationalising his guilt through paternalistic treatment of the oppressed, all the while holding them fast in a position of dependence, will not do.

A position of solidarity, however, requires an alignment. It is a radical position. It means fighting side by side, not fighting for people. Freire talks about objective reality alot and the conditioning of people into conformity, to fear liberation. It requires people to be alongside others, with the fight focused on changing the perception of the objective reality. This does not entail acts of charity, or acts of kindness, or indeed acts of saving. It demands love and respect. It requires genuine connection, humility. It does not require sacrifice, as the hero narrative suggests.

Positioning the oppressor as the oppressed

I am going to focus on social work for a second, instead of wider — Simply for the fact that this is a particular problem here. There is a concerning, sadly popular movement that hails the social worker as the oppressed. Now let me get this out the way and say it is fine to be concerned with workload, working conditions. But it is not okay to position social workers in a position of victimhood, which is very much a part of the hero narrative. The hero narrative demands attention, even pity — To make their acts of heroism stronger.

This positioning completely neglects that as part of a system of power, a social worker is not, by any means oppressed. To say so, further the oppression of others, through the ridicule and objectification of the ‘other’. It is an act of violence:

Any situation where ‘A’ objectively exploits ‘B’ or hinders his and her pursuit of self-affirmation as a responsible person is one of oppression. Such a situation in itself constitutes violence, even when sweetened with false generosity

This, for me at least, spells out the danger of a hero narrative. It is shrouded in a false generosity — In this case, the poor old social worker, saving children. When in fact, then using these experiences as part of a exploitative dialogue to gain ‘hero status’ is an act of violence against the other. They then use this power, this voice, their platform as a way of positioning themselves in a contradiction, an oppressor, disguised as the oppressed.

The oppressors do not perceive their monopoly on having more as a privilege, which dehumanises others and themselves. They can not see that, in the egoistic pursuit of having as a possessing class, they suffocate in their own possessions and no longer are; they merely have. For them, having more is an inalienable right, a right they acquired through their own ‘effort’, with their courage to take risks. If others do not have more, it is because they are incompetent and lazy, and worst of all in their unjustifiable ingratitude towards the generous gestures of the dominant class.

This quote returns me to the difficulty of social workers as the oppressed in the context of the hero narrative. In particular a populist surge of victimhood in certain circles.

They remain the dominant class in the societal power structure. They do not see that in maintaining this view — All they are doing is dehumanising themselves and others. The become embroiled in their own world and ‘possessions’ within — Be that a following or an audience — They lose sight of concrete reality, furthering themselves and in turn the other, from an authentic praxis. They see the issues affecting them as a given, as it has been established through their heroism, or ‘effort’. In being the hero, they view those they are saving as the ‘incompetent’ — As ‘in need of saving’ is hardly an empowering position. It is through sometimes mockery of those they save, that they show their disdain at the “unjustifiable ingratitude”. for in the eyes of some, they should be all hailed.

Liberation vs communion

Freire argues, simplistically, that in order to liberate everyone (remembering a cornerstone of Freire’s work is that both the oppressed and the oppressors require liberation)— People need to work in solidarity or communion.

A hero narrative does not appreciate solidarity — Because they would no longer be the hero. Working with others, or being in communion, is not a heroic act.

Every approach to the oppressed by the elites, as a class, is couched in terms of the false generosity.

True work with people, requires exactly that — With. Not saving, not for, not on behalf of. Only with. To reach a position of authentic praxis and to begin true discovery and self-affirmation of both the oppressor and the oppressed requires this. Freire argued however, that working with does not suit the oppressors as it has the potential to disrupt the social order. Working with people, solidarity with others, is discursive. Freire puts this struggle very well:

What could be more important than to live and work with the oppressed, with the ‘rejects of life’ with the ‘wretched of the earth’?

A hero narrative relies on this discourse of othering. It relies on a process of shaming, belittling, ridicule and lowering of status. It relies on the oppression of others to serve it’s own purpose. It requires the hero to save, or to liberate the oppressed. It has been argued however, that liberation is impossible.

We can legitimately say that in the process of oppression someone oppresses someone else; we cannot say that in the process of revolution someone liberates someone else, nor yet that someone liberates himself, but rather that human beings in communion liberate eachother.

This is why the hero narrative is very damaging. Because all the while in their deluded minds, the heroes really feel like they are saving, or liberating. In reality, they are maintaining the status quo, furthering the oppression of others and legitimising the othering of those they consider necessary of saving, who by virtue are constructed as a ‘lower class’.

Harmful memes, belittling of ‘service users’ and that very attempt to draw strong distinctions between ‘the professionals’ and the ‘other’ all serve to further oppression, going directly against the principles of social justice and solidarity. Positioning as the hero is unhelpful, giving only the oppressors more power — Maintaining their status and furthering the idea of giving and charity as a way of giving the other just enough, while maintaining the status quo. I urge you to think about this the next time you laugh at a meme belittling a service user, or a woe is me post about a social worker.

All quotes from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970)