A while back I wrote a pair of articles on “The Happy End vs. The Noble End.” The first article discussed our preference for endings in which the main character emerges victorious compared to the popular 19th Century ending in which the hero’s good deeds went unrewarded and unknown.
I wrote in the first article:
The theme of nobility conducted in secret was popular a century ago. It doesn’t sit well with us now. It seems to fly in the face of our notion of a just world. At least this is the conventional wisdom about what audiences want.
We have occasional glimpses of noble self-sacrifice. Action movies often feature a secondary character who fills that role. Michelle Rodriguez’s role in Avatar, Trudy Cachon, comes to mind, but the film does not make her crisis of conscience central and her death for a greater good is in support of the real business of allowing the heroes pummel the bad guys and save the day.
(Incidentally, while we’re talking about Trudy Cachon taking the fall so our hero can save the day, you might want to read about a couple of TV/Movie tropes. “Black Dude Dies First” and “Vasquez Always Dies.”)
In the follow up article on the topic, I talked about how we are now living in what one cultural historian calls “The Culture of Personality” as contrasted with the 19th Century “Culture of Character.” Susan Cain, in her book Quiet, described this shift:
In the Culture of Character, the ideal self was serious, disciplined, and honorable. What counted was not so much the impression one made in public as how one behaved in private. The word personality didn’t exist in English until the eighteenth century, and the idea of “having a good personality” was not widespread until the twentieth. But when they embraced the Culture of Personality, Americans started to focus on how others perceived them. They became captivated by people who were bold and entertaining….
The ideal hero has changed as well. The physical laborer owned his inner world, as did his hero. The service worker gets things by manipulating the impression he makes on people in the outer world. His hero acts in this realm and must win in this realm. In the culture of personality, what is not apparent to the outer world might as well not exist. If good intentions do not yield good results– directly for the person who is the viewpoint character– what is the point? We can’t abide by a story like Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth where the main character’s self-sacrifice is a secret shared only with the reader. We may not change the story to the extent that Lily Bart lives happily ever after, but in the modern film version we at least have to see that someone in her world learns what she did.
So building a “personality” and getting credit for your good deeds are matters of survival in the attention economy.
We are seeing a real world demonstration of the effects of these narratives among members of the military. In the past few weeks a couple of members of the Navy Seals have gone on record claiming to be the man who pulled the trigger and killed Osama Bin Laden.
The publicity seeking among the ranks of Seal Team Six has led Rear Adm. Brian Losey to write a letter reminding the elite forces that it is not part of their culture to take credit or seek the limelight. As reported in the Navy Times:
“At Naval Special Warfare’s core is the SEAL ethos,” according to the letter, which was obtained by Navy Times. “A critical tenant of our ethos is ‘I do not advertise the nature of my work, nor seek recognition for my actions.’ Our ethos is a life-long commitment and obligation, both in and out of the service. Violators of our ethos are neither teammates in good standing, nor teammates who represent Naval Special Warfare.”
…“We will not abide willful or selfish disregard for our core values in return for public notoriety and financial gain, which only diminishes otherwise honorable service, courage and sacrifice,” the letter says. “Our credibility as a premier fighting force is forged in this sacrifice and has been accomplished with honor, as well as humility.”
Yet our culture does not tell the stories of those who sacrifice with humility. Yes, our politicians lay wreaths at the tomb of the unknowns and they utter stirring words about serving with honor. But in our popular narrative we have abandoned the character who acts with honor when no one is looking. If we do not tell stories that honor those who make unrewarded sacrifices, how can we expect our soldiers to feel truly valued when their deeds remain unknown?