Heroism, Spotlight

Heroes, Mental Illness, & Fake Heroes at Isla Vista

Last week there was another horrific mass shooting in my home country of the United States. I didn’t get a lot of details at first, partly because I’m out of the country and don’t get US news—but partly because my Twitter feed had less actual news and more rallying cries like this:

I don’t believe that all criminals are mentally ill, and the vast majority of people coping with mental illness are certainly not criminals. But something about this sentiment seemed off.

Ari Kohen did a great job of summing up why, making three points:

  1. People with mental illness shouldn’t be stereotyped as criminals;
  2. We should be careful using the word “crazy” for everything we find weird or different;
  3. Nonetheless, we must not ignore the fact that this shooter was clearly mentally ill.

In other words, it doesn’t help anyone if we pretend that psychopaths are healthy balanced folks. But Ari sort of made an assumption: he’s saying someone who unloads bullets on lots of people “must” be mentally ill. Is that assumption really fair?

According to Roger Griffin, one of the world’s foremost experts on terrorism, it’s a totally fair assumption. In fact, Griffin believes that mass shooters aren’t just mentally ill, they have their own unique mental illness.

The Dark Side of Heroism

Griffin says that such shooters typically have a sense of impotence, powerlessness or aimlessness tied to loneliness and isolation. To fill that sense of purpose and reclaim a sense of power they construct violent fantasies in which they are the hero, and in which they can make things right with a single dramatic act. They then grossly overestimate their own ability to change the world. They believe completely that one violent act—their mission—will have world-changing repercussions. Thus they are not only violent, they are also deluded into seeing themselves as heroes.

(Note that in different circumstances imagining yourself as a hero can be a positive force for change.)

In the case of Elliot Rodger, who committed the recent mass-killing at Isla Vista, every one of these boxes is checked. He fits this diagnosis to a T.

When defenders of the mentally ill (a cause I respect and agree with) took to Twitter after the shooting, I imagine they didn’t have many details yet. They probably didn’t realize that Rodger had written a lengthy manifesto portraying his murder spree as an act of justice. They weren’t aware of his megalomania, or how firmly he believed this one bloody act would set everything right in the world. And they almost certainly didn’t realize that he viewed himself as the hero in a cosmic battle of good against evil.

Because if they had known any of that, I hope they wouldn’t have told us the shooter wasn’t mentally ill. A better message may have been, “Most people who struggle with mental illness are peaceful and friendly,” or even, “If he’d had the treatment he needed, this might never have happened.” Both of those fit neatly into 140 characters.

But there’s no doubt Elliot Rodger suffered from delusions—delusions that didn’t just lead him to stab or shoot 20 people, but to believe that doing so was a great act of service.

This is the dark side of heroism. This is how heroic fantasy becomes a track to live out personal desires at the expense of others. Which is exactly why I insist on a litmus test for any heroic act: it has to not only meet the basic definition of heroism, but it can never be an act of forced dominion. If you are imposing your own will on others then, no matter how noble your cause (in reality or in your delusions), you can never be a hero.

I highly recommend reading the full interview with Roger Griffin at War is Boring.

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My book Lúnasa Days is available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

Heroism, Spotlight

Crazy Cameron Hamilton Knows a Thing or Two about Heroes

Mayor Cameron Hamilton

Yesterday my friend Ari Kohen spotlighted a California mayor with a terrible message about bullying.

Mayor Cameron Hamilton apparently announced that schoolkids suffering from bullies ought to “grow a pair” and just handle the matter themselves. That’s obviously not a popular approach these days (it’s also an ineffectual approach) so the Mayor took nationwide flak over it, and agreed to sit down for an interview (video here).

And he actually reveals some very interesting views.

In the video, the mayor sticks to his guns that children basically need to handle bullying themselves. He believes anti-bullying programs are unnecessary, which I strongly disagree with. But what’s interesting to me is his reasoning. The mayor offers three concerns:

  1. Kids are not encouraged to handle bullying on their own.
  2. Kids don’t know how to defend themselves physically if need be.
  3. We aren’t teaching kids to look out for each other and speak out when they see bullying.

Some of these actually have merit, and I’ll discuss them below. But his overarching logic is (I quote), “It’s up to you [the kid] and your friends to put a stop to this.” That is a deeply flawed idea.

Even as an adult it isn’t “up to you” alone to resolve violence or threats against you; we have a complex legal system to make sure grownups can get their assailants removed from society, or receive compensation for the damages against them, or both. And for kids we never take an “it’s up to you” approach. It isn’t up to a kid to do their homework without a parent or teacher’s help, and it isn’t up to kids to drive themselves to the hospital if they’re sick. The whole point of caring for kids is helping them do things they don’t know how to do so they can learn to do them right.

That certainly includes dealing with bullies, threats and confrontation, which is why we have anti-bullying policies. And the new policies that feature bully education and safe zones, which Hamilton disapproves of, were developed precisely because the old “don’t let ‘em get you down” approach routinely failed.

So I disagree with Hamilton’s antiquated beliefs about rugged anti-bullying individualism. But in his backwardness, I also think he made some good points.

I think it would be great if more kids were trained in self defense. I was bullied heavily as a kid and learning martial arts helped significantly. That’s not because I went on a rampage and kicked all the bullies’ asses, it’s because martial arts is a powerful way to build confidence in kids. There was probably no activity in my entire childhood that had as much of an impact on my growth as martial arts did. Aside from getting into better physical shape, I felt more comfortable with myself and more able to speak up for myself when someone bullied me. I never actually had to use my training to defend myself physically, because my new positive attitude defrayed most situations and eventually stopped the bullying altogether.

Martial arts may not be right for every kid, but learning to defend yourself does have an effect of making you stronger as a person. I think offering self-defense classes would actually be a great component to a school anti-bullying program. Cameron Hamilton might be able to get behind that.

But the thing that really caught my attention was Hamilton’s third point, that bullying ends when one kid will stand up for another kid they see being bullied. This stood out at me because what he’s talking about is heroism. The most basic act of heroism is when a bystander refuses to stay silent, and takes a stand against something they believe is wrong. Overcoming this “bystander effect” of wanting to keep your head down is central to current hero research… and the anti-bullying programs based on it.

So Hamilton is (rightly) asking kids to be heroes. If they’re willing to do that, they really will end bullying in their schools faster than any safe zone, counseling program or demerit system. The problem is that being heroic goes against our instincts. When we see someone abusing someone else, we have a desperate urge not to get involved. Being the first one to step forward and say something is terrifying.

So you can’t just tell kids, “make sure to stand up for each other.” That advice doesn’t work. It’s like saying, “don’t eat sugar.” The only way to get kids to bravely stand up for each other—a tactic that really does work—is to to teach them how to do that confidently and safely.

And teaching that to kids is the centerpiece of today’s best anti-bullying programs, like the Hero Construction Company run by Matt Langdon. Principals have reported not only a total reversal in bullying after Matt’s program, but also better performance in other areas and students wanting to start school programs and volunteer projects. The bullying stops because kids now have the ability to watch out for each other, just like crazy Cameron Hamilton wants.

But that result doesn’t just happen on its own. Kids don’t just pull up their bootstraps. They learn this behavior through anti-bullying programs like the Hero Construction Company, which is exactly the sort of bully education that Hamilton thinks he really hates.

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My book Lúnasa Days is available in paperback and on Kindle. Get your copy here.

Heroism, Spotlight

CNN Heroes: Not Heroes

Reblogged from Running Chicken:

Writing in the University of Mary Washington student newspaper, Sarah Grammar identifies the problem with “CNN Heroes”

CNN finds everyday people in communities all over the world who are reaching out to increase the quality of life for those around them. These people devote their lives to others and for many excellent reasons. The 2013 top CNN hero of the year, Chad Pregracke, dedicated his life to cleaning up the Mississippi River when he realized no one else was bothering to do it.

He first started pulling up tires, washing machines and other discarded items out of the river fifteen years ago and has since then gained about 70,000 volunteers. Is this really Heroism though? Cleaning up a mess no one should have made in the first place? Sure it is a great thing for us and for the environment, but should it be considered heroic?

It certainly takes a lot of effort to do the volunteer work that Pregracke did. But it’s not heroism.

Pregracke did not go against his family, or tradition to accomplish his goals; no one stood in his way.

One would say a hero is someone who overcomes obstacles, sometimes dangerous ones. What obstacles were in his way that could not be easily solved? What dangers did he face?
Unquestionably, we should all do more to help other people and our communities; most of us really don’t do much at all. And perhaps that’s what CNN is trying to inspire with its awards show: Put some feel-good stories on television and encourage viewers to do likewise.

But using “hero” to label any positive action that takes some effort or that not everyone is doing is a mistake; it downplays what it really means to do something heroic and, at the same, it also might be setting these “heroes” apart from the rest of us by putting them on a pedestal that we might think is out of our reach.

Running Chicken is the heroism-and-politics science of professor/human rights thinker Ari Kohen. It’s the only blog I read daily. You can check it out for yourself.

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My book Lúnasa Days is available on Kindle and in paperback. Get your copy here.