Heroism, Spotlight

The Hero Delusion Report

That’s me in some back and forth with hero philosophers Ari Kohen and Matt Langdon on this week’s Hero Report

The discussion builds from my essay on the difference between heroic imagination and hero delusion, inspired by the mass killing at Isla Vista.

One clarification: toward the end of the discussion Ari frames healthy heroic imagination as “other regarding”, i.e., selfless. I agreed in passing but on reflection I’m not sure. It seems to me that the road to heroism almost always starts out with a focus on the self. You begin by seeking to understand your own purpose in life or by trying to live up to a dream, talent or ideal. This is an act of personal development. Over time that development, and the realization of your own potential, allows you to be more and more helpful to others.

This is a core idea in Classical heroism, that pursuing your own excellence is what ends up turning you into a hero. Even our 21st century idea of heroic imagination is essentially an inward, reflective act: you picture yourself as a hero and ask how you can improve to reach that ideal.

In the video, when Ari says we should think only of the good of others, I joked that I actually spend several hours a day thinking about my own good. If we focus too much on selflessness we make heroism unrealistic, and we miss out on a great hero development tool which is self development. Very few of us dreamed as children of being St. Francis of Assisi, but an awful lot of us dreamed of being Harry Potter or Superman.

For more on selfishness, terrorism and other hero delusions, check out the video for yourself. My favorite part is on the question of whether heroism is relative or defined by the winners.

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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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