In the Independent today, there’s a story of a supermarket checkout assistant at the Sainsbury’s Crayford store in south-east London being ‘hailed as a heroine after striking a blow for modern manners by refusing to serve a shopper who was talking on her phone’. Speaking after the incident, the shopper, Jo Clarke, a property manager, said about the checkout assistant ‘I couldn’t believe how rude she was. When did she have the right to give me a lecture on checkout etiquette? I won’t be shopping there again. I’ll go to Waitrose instead’
Not suprisingly, Sainsbury’s felt obliged to apologise to the customer saying that it was not company policy to refuse service to people on mobile phones, and gave Ms Clarke vouchers to compensate for her treatment. But social media sites and internet forums were enraged that the store had caved in, and the public appeared to be rallying round the checkout worker.
One could say a great deal about this incident, and its irony, but what struck me was the checkout assistant being hailed as a heroine.
A hero or heroine in Greek mythology and folklore, was originally a demigod, the son or daughter from one immortal and one mortal parent. Later, hero, or heroine, came to refer to characters who, in the face of danger and adversity or from a position of weakness, display courage and the will for self-sacrifice – that is, heroism – for some greater good of all humanity. This definition originally referred to martial courage or excellence, but extended to more general moral excellence. In a dictionary, the first definition is invariably one that defines hero as a person noted for feats of courage or nobility of purpose, especially one who has risked or sacrificed his or her life. But there are other definitions: someone who fights for a cause, someone who can be looked up to for their actions, a person noted for special achievement in a particular field, or who is idealized for possessing superior qualities in any field, or just someone who an individual admires or idolises very much. And of course the main character in a story, play, film, who is usually good, is often portrayed as a hero who, despite the odds being stacked against him or her, typically prevails in the end.
Myself, I prefer the hero who is brave in the face of danger or adversity, who fights for a cause for the benefit of others, as opposed to someone who is successful in their field, or who has influence, wealth, or fame. In the latter case, musicians, singers, sports people, TV personalities, royalty, are often idolised by fans and commentators and described as heroes, as are some inventors, scientists, entrepreneurs, unorthodox business people, and populist politicians. But to me, none of these groups are being brave in the face of danger or standing up for a cause with little regard for the consequences.
Although servicemen, the police, firefighters, emergency and rescue workers know they can face great risks, there must be many occasions when they are defiant of danger or put others before themselves, sometimes with fatal results. When this happens they are acclaimed as heroes. There are also the millions of unseen heroes, the ordinary people, who in all walks of life unselfishly care for others, or stand up against wrong-doing, in the most difficult of circumstances. Altruism – the willingness to do things that bring advantages to others, even if it results in disadvantage for yourself – must play some part in people acting heroically, but these people are surely heroes nonetheless.
In 2002, the BBC website listed 100 ‘great British heroes’ according to a nationwide poll, link. The list included Julie Andrews, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Bob Geldof, Stephen Hawking, T E Lawrence, Bobby Moore, Emmeline Pankhurst, Johnny Rotten, Ernest Shackleton, and Robbie Williams. It is doubtful if a similar poll today would be any less diverse. Put ‘hero’ into Google images and see if you can spot a hero.
What of the supermarket checkout assistant? Is she a heroine? Well I don’t think so – unless she faced the sack for speaking up – but I am glad there are people out there who are not prepared to suffer blatant rudeness day after day.