Heroism

Response to a Critique

Photo by Chloe

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.

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6 thoughts on “Response to a Critique

  1. Calluna says:

    Although the thought of different types of heroes preparing you for different types of heroism is relevant and interesting (here I begin thinking of pantheons – a hero for everything you aspire to, like a god for everything), after reading Ari’s entry, I am not convinced that is the heart of his statement, and maybe he will speak up here. It seems that what he is saying is that maintaining risk as a part of the definition is important to him. To him, inspiration is not enough to call someone a hero – he still needs that element of personal risk before a hero can be a hero.

    That in and of itself begs the question, how big would the risk have to be, and what form would it have to take? I don’t know Lady Gaga very well, but she is brought up in these discussions a lot. From an artistic standpoint, there is often risk involved with being an outlier. There is the risk that you will put your all of your time, money, passion, and soul on the line for nothing – for art that no one will understand or recognize. There is the risk that all of this time you could have been building a comfortable life with a steady paycheck, and now you are 40 and can still barely pay your bills and no one will hire you because your only real marketable skill is the ability to play a guitar really well. The starving artist is a cliche for a reason, and I have known many, and some who have sacrificed more than I can imagine for their art. I actually abandoned my top art after watching multiple friends give up their families, financial security, sometimes even their health for it – sacrifices I was not willing to make for success in the arts. Artists are often keenly aware that they are putting everything on the line for love of a highly competitive field where they can fail spectacularly, where it could affect the rest of their life and the lives of those around them. But if they were successful, they could have been inspiring the masses. So is this kind of risk enough?

    Does it have to be physical risk? What about financial risk? What about emotional risk? What about risking losing your friends and relations? Risk of deportation, excommunication, or more? There are many types of risk. Does it have to be your life and limb, or can it be more esoteric? Are these all different types of heroes, or are they not?

    Can we have a pantheon of heroes, or must they all be Zeus?

    Here is another thought. Some oft-mentioned heroes in this discussion – MLK Jr and Gandhi – their actions did not in and of themselves did not leave to physical threat. Their primary activities were speaking and organizing – in inspiring the masses *so much* that they became a threat to powerful people. And when they became a threat, that is when physical risk occurred (hunger strikes aside). And sure, they probably knew it would happen, could see it coming. But threat to life and limb never would have come if they were not so good at inspiring.

    In the end, we are still arguing semantics: What is a hero to you? Can a hero inspire and not take risks? Can a hero take risks and not inspire? Must a hero do both? How much? And does the word “hero” have to be the same thing to everyone? So long as we can all communicate with one another, I personally think it’s ok for a hero to mean something different to us all. And I also think that we are all more on the same page than it appears at first glance.

    • Hi Calluna, sorry for the slow reply. I love your comment.

      First off:

      It seems that what he is saying is that maintaining risk as a part of the definition is important to him. To him, inspiration is not enough to call someone a hero – he still needs that element of personal risk before a hero can be a hero.

      Yes, this is exactly what he’s saying. And, to answer a question you raise, no: neither Ari, myself, nor any hero scholar is saying the risk has to be physical. We frequently give examples of people taking social or financial risk, such an employee blowing the whistle on a company that’s breaking the law. That’s taking a non-physical risk (career security) for the sake of others (those the company is hurting or exploiting).

      Where I think Ari and I disagree – I don’t want to speak for him – is indeed in assessing what kind of sacrifice counts. You wrote:

      There is the risk that you will put your all of your time, money, passion, and soul on the line for nothing – for art that no one will understand or recognize… Artists are often keenly aware that they are putting everything on the line for love of a highly competitive field where they can fail spectacularly, where it could affect the rest of their life and the lives of those around them. But if they were successful, they could have been inspiring the masses. So is this kind of risk enough?

      I think the answer you’d get from most hero researchers is either no, this kind of risk isn’t enough, or else that it’s risk in service to the artist themselves. They’re not risking their financial security to help others, like whistleblower; they’re risking it in the hopes of succeeding at a job they love. It’s not selfless.

      (Although anyone out there who creates art knows that we do it as much because we believe in Art writ large as because of any hope of personal gain. It feels like working for a greater cause.)

      I get really uncomfortable with assessing risk like this because it feels like sending in an insurance adjuster to try to valuate someone’s most important life decisions. I don’t know that some sort of risk calculus should be central to our assessment of heroism because the perceived risks an individual faces in making any important life decision cannot be known to those of us sitting around watching. Anytime we choose our values over comfort, security, safety, or money there is always a sense of risk – it is always a sacrifice. And to me, it’s a sacrifice we should encourage; nothing is more important to humanity than to see more of us putting our values first. But then, I believe in virtue ethics.

  2. Calluna says:

    One more thing: Real risk vs perceived risk.

    I heard this story on NPR recently:
    http://www.npr.org/2013/11/15/243294593/what-s-the-real-lesson-of-david-and-goliath

    The summary of this story is that, although David and Goliath have gone into myth and history as the classic story of the underdog – little guy against big guy – although the generations view David as a hero for that reason – Goliath was actually the underdog. Goliath never stood a chance. Assuming this research has arrived at the truth, is David still a hero?

    In reality, David was always going to win. He probably knew it. He wasn’t a hero.

    But when David’s story met the masses, that part of the story didn’t translate. David has inspired generations to keep fighting against seemingly ridiculous odds. He became a hero.

    I just found that a fascinating story… I don’t have any real point to make.

    • It’s a good point Calluna. I think that when someone takes a perceived risk it definitely counts as risk taking. I don’t really know enough about the specifics of Goliath and David to comment, however.

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