Saturday, June 23, 2007

Hero or Zero?

Scenario A: It is Diwali day. You are standing on your terrace, happily gorging on sweets and dry fruits, peacefully watching (and hearing) the fireworks outside your house. You notice that some of the kids are quite reckless and courting danger. In a few minutes, sure enough, one of the kids gets hit by a cracker and is rolling on the floor in pain. In a flash, you rush to the spot, grab the injured child, put him in your car, drive to the nearest hospital and get him attended to, by the medical staff. You return home and the child’s mother thanks you profusely. You are a hero.

Scenario B: It is Diwali day. You are standing on your terrace, happily gorging on sweets and dry fruits, and peacefully watching (and hearing) the fireworks outside your house. You notice that some of the kids are quite reckless and courting danger. You rush down and caution the children that they ought to be more careful and must not take such liberties with fire. The children scatter; cursing the grouchy, preachy uncle. Next time you cross their house, the mother gives you a look that says. “Keep off my child, you foul-mouthed old man”. You are a zero.

In the introduction to his book, The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, writes:

It is quite saddening to think of those people who have been mistreated by history… the category of those who we do not know were heroes, who saved our lives, who helped us avoid disasters. They left no traces and did not even know that they were making a contribution. We remember the martyrs who died for a cause that we knew about, never those no less effective in their contribution but whose cause we were never aware of- precisely because they were successful.

Taleb then illustrates his point with a thought experiment :

Assume that a legislator with courage, influence, intellect, vision and perseverance manages to enact a law that goes into universal effect on Sep 10, 2001; it imposes the continuously locked bulletproof doors in every cockpit (at high cost to the struggling airlines)- just in case terrorists decide to use planes to attack the World Trade Centre. Not a popular measure, but it would have prevented 9/11.

The person who imposed locks on cockpit doors will get no statues in public squares, not so much as a quick mention of his contribution in his obituary. “Joe Smith, who helped avoid disaster of 9/11, died of complications of liver disease”. Seeing how superfluous his measure was, and how it squandered resources, he might be booted out of office. He will die with the impression of having done nothing useful.

Now, consider again the events of 9/11 that really happened. In their aftermath, who gets the recognition? Those you saw in the media, on television performing heroic acts, and those whom you saw trying to give you the impression that they were performing heroic acts .The latter category includes someone like the New York Stock Exchange chairman, Richard Grasso, who ‘saved the stock exchange’ and received a huge bonus. All he had to do was be there to ring the opening bell.
Yes, I see the point that Taleb is trying to make. We tend to be blind and unfair.

Just think. Who gets more accolades, the Prime Minister who uses diplomacy and tact to avoid a war, or a President who initiates a war and emerges triumphant? Who gets more column space in the news, the tennis player who plays a clinical, error-free game and wins 6-2, 6-2, 6-2 or the player who fumbles in the first two sets, but ‘fights back magnificently’ to win 0-6, 0-6, 7-6, 6-4, 6-4? The latter, in both examples.

Why are Republic Day Awards for bravery given only to those who responded well to a crisis, and not to those who by some quiet action had prevented a crisis? For very heroic person who jumped into a well to save a drowning child, there were five silent heroes who stopped five children from going near the well in the first place.

How come a cardio-surgeon who does a bypass procedure is paid lakhs of rupees and is treated like a hero, while a dietician who quietly counsels people to follow a healthy diet and helps prevent coronary disease not treated like one?

So, sing a silent ode to all these unsung and unheralded heroes of the world. Also, bear in mind, that this Diwali, if you find yourself in a situation I described in the beginning of this post, avoid the sermonising. Let the damn child get hurt and create conditions conducive for your heroic exploits.


dipali said...

A very valid point, Raj. Almost cosmic- if no one hears the sound of a tree falling in the forest, did it fall at all?

Usha said...

Very valid argument. As for the bravery awards, I think the award is for a quick resposne to the crisis. Averting gives you the time but crisis requires immedaite action and in prevention you do not risk your life to save the other.

Raj said...

dipali, this is not one of those philosophical rants. This is a real one!

usha, so why should speed of response be the main yardstick of heroism?

Ashu said...

Very Well said and written! It's saddening that such heroes are unnoticed. No one tends to follow "Prevention is better than cure!".