We must turn this tide

27th January 2006 at 00:00
A Scots teacher saved the lives of 17 people in the tsunami, but his name was quickly forgotten by a society more interested in victims than heroes, says Stuart Waiton

Ten years ago, London headteacher Philip Lawrence was stabbed to death outside his school while trying to break up a fight. This tragic murder was not at the time presented and understood as a one-off event , however, but as a wake-up call to society about the state of British youth.

At the end of 1995, BBC Radio 4 listeners voted Lawrence the personality of the year and, in 1997, he received a posthumous Queen's Gallantry Medal.

Gwen Mayor, a teacher murdered by gunman Thomas Hamilton at Dunblane, was given the Queen's Commendation for Bravery.

In the past, awards for bravery were just that, awards for bravery. But, looking at recent honours lists and the "personalities" who have captured society's imagination in the past 10 years, it becomes clear that such awards are now often being given less for bravery than for the victim status society has bestowed upon these individuals.

The elevation of the status of the victim in society reflects well the more pessimistic climate that prevails today. The Queen's Speech over Christmas was a good example of this where, as The Times columnist Mick Hume observed, the Asian tsunami was held up as the defining image of life in 2005, where "vulnerable humanity", besieged by the elements, could barely cling to the rocks.

The investigative journalist Brendan O'Neill similarly noted how the new Pope's first Christmas sermon was rich on miserabilism about terrorism, pandemics and environmental destruction. Sounding like a well-known Scot, famous for his cry of "we're all doomed", Pope Benedict XVI showed his knowledge of modern-day theories of risk when he argued that "the men and women of our own technological age risk becoming victims of their own intellectual and technical achievements".

In a different age, the tsunami and humanity's "intellectual and technical achievements" would have been understood differently, and a man such as Falkirk High biology teacher John Chroston would have become a household name.

For those who missed the few days of press coverage that Mr Chroston received, his story in brief is this: while on a beach in Thailand with his family, he watched as the sea was suddenly sucked from beneath his feet, leaving fish and boats alike stranded on the sand. Having some knowledge of geology, the teacher and volunteer Scots mountain rescue worker realised a tsunami was on its way and so ran up the beach shouting "tsunami" in a desperate attempt to get people away from the water.

Chroston then grabbed his family, commandeered a bus full of people and demanded the driver head for the hills, dragging a pregnant woman and a mother and child aboard as the bus fled the fast approaching wave.

John Chroston saved 17 lives that day, but how many people reading this article have heard his name, and how many in comparison remember the name of Philip Lawrence? Perhaps unsurprisingly, given today's climate of doom, it is Mr Lawrence who is famous and, while Mr Chroston's story has appeared in a grand total of 14 newspapers in the past year, Philip Lawrence's name has been mentioned in 166 articles - partly because there is now an award named after him.

Unlike Mr Lawrence, whose name lives on, as does the image of violence and loss associated with it, Mr Chroston achieved public recognition for only a few days and was then forgotten. Being simply a hero, without an associated victim status or image of vulnerability, this biology teacher's actions are unappreciated by a society more inclined to wallow in the destructive image of humanity than its creative and inspiring potential.

Using knowledge to understand the world, to attempt to overcome nature and save many people's lives, Mr Chroston's actions fit uncomfortably with the notion of people as destructive and as "victims of their own intellectual and technical achievements".

Mr Chroston's act should be recognised by society, not because he is special or superhuman, but because his actions are inspiring and represent something we can all hope to emulate given similar circumstances.

Unfortunately, today's anti-human society is simply not fit for heroes.

Stuart Waiton is a director of GenerationYouthIssues.org

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