I’ve written a lot about the idea of inspiring others as a form of heroism. Specifically, that heroism includes not just taking big risks for others, but doing anything so impressive it inspires others to be better people.
That’s because inspiring others to change for the better is something all heroes do, from those who save thousands of lives to those who simply stand up to a bully. There are many ways to be a hero, but the one thing they all have in common is provoking a feeling of awe in the rest of us.
Not everyone agrees with this view of heroism. My friend Ari Kohen recently published a piece pushing back strongly against it. It’s worth reading in full, but I’m going to focus on a few key points.
What stands out is the way Ari portrays people who use the word “hero” to refer to those who inspire them:
I’m tired of everyone getting a trophy. Tired of the whole concept and all the ways it plays out in our society. I’m tired of ribbons that say “participant” on them. I’m tired of students telling me they deserve an “A” because they tried hard. I’m tired of the insistence that everyone should feel good about exerting the smallest possible effort.
I agree. But to me this doesn’t hit home as a critique of calling our role models heroes. When I ask people who their heroes are, they name just a select few. They never list every good person they know, and they rarely have long lists at all. People just don’t hand out hero lightly.
There’s no doubt that the kind of people we call heroes is a mixed bag. Often, people tell me their grandma or grandpa is their hero. Sometimes an artist or a writer or an athlete. We can argue about the merits of any one of these choices, but here’s the catch: people are naming only the most impressive individuals in their lives. It’s the exact opposite of a participation ribbon.
Similarly, Ari writes:
Many people, it seems, just want to hear good news. They want to be told that if they make someone’s day or inspire someone, they’re heroic.
I don’t think that many people are hoping to be called heroic. Most have the opposite instinct. Try telling someone you know that one of their accomplishments makes them a hero. They will get very uncomfortable and they’ll probably deny it.
If someone doesn’t agree that inspirational figures count as heroes, that’s fine by me. But I think it’s important to understand the motivation behind calling them heroes. It isn’t that people have low standards, are lazy, or can’t tell the difference between a small deed and a big one. If you ask what a hero looks like, everyone knows Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. is a good answer. But what they’re really interested in is the people in their own life experience—friends, family members, mentors, role models—who provoke a glimmer of that same sense of awe. Those people feel more real. And that means they have a much bigger impact on our heroic imagination, the trait that helps us become heroic ourselves.
And that comes to Ari’s main point. He doesn’t think inspirational figures help prepare us for heroism at all. He offers the example of someone whose hero is a pop star. Will this person be ready to pull survivors from a burning building? Will they jump onto the train tracks and rescue a child from a speeding subway? How would looking up to Lady Gaga possibly prepare them for that?
This is, I think, Ari’s strongest point. I don’t really know whether having an artist-hero prepares you for rescue heroism, or if a thinker-hero prepares you for taking action. I suppose it depends on whether inspiration works on a one-to-one basis (we copy the action we admire), or whether it provokes an internal process of self-reflection that makes us strive to be better more broadly. I suppose it also depends on what it is we admire about a particular hero; to me, Lady Gaga’s willingness to sacrifice for her art and endure years of ridicule is far more inspirational than her singing talent.
And the same question works in reverse. If your hero is someone who rescued people from a burning building, how prepared are you to stay true to your art in the face of tremendous hostility? It’s possible that people simply need different kinds of heroes, because there are different kinds of good to strive for.
The individuals who have gone above and beyond those around them, in the pursuit of any admirable quality, are what we end up calling heroes—not just those who stick their necks out for others. You can disagree with that, but it shouldn’t be dismissed as intellectual laziness. We’re complex creatures, with a multiplicity of values. That makes it pretty much inevitable that we’ll have a multiplicity of heroes as well.