Why are heroes so important in narrative construction of public crises?

Yesterday, a reporter asked me: Why do state media and officials praise individuals for their heroic actions in a public crisis and what is the government’s strategy to shape the narrative? Here is my answer.

The narrative developed in Party propaganda messages is generally designed to achieve three main goals.

First, it deactivates motivation for change. Specifically, the exaltation of state-nominated “heroes”, however deserving of the highest praise, helps to channel the targeted audience’s emotion of indignation or sense of injustice toward the appreciation of self-sacrifice. This “emotion work” dampens the otherwise explosive and destructive force of the “negative” emotion, which motivates and even compels actions for change.

Second, it breaks the chain of events of a crisis and de-links the crisis from its causes. Very often, such propaganda messages would characterize the regulatory authority as a saviour instead of an offender, “smuggling” it back into the reconstructed narrative as the “sponsor” of the rescuing efforts, being portrayed as the one who authorized, facilitated and/or enabled, the heroic actions of acknowledged individuals.

Third, the narrative conditions its audience to accept the occurrence of the crisis and to take it as a given. By directing the audience’s attention toward individual altruism, the narrative obscures the state’s failure to discharge its duty to provide public safety. At the same time, the narrative also deflects and/or downplays the importance of any investigative efforts that are directed to check systematic failure, which, because of their very goal, are likely to threaten the survival of the system and hence need to be repressed.

 

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