In this series of posts I will try to make sense of what makes a hero. These posts are a record of my thoughts on the matter, and might not always be coherent. If you have feedback or thoughts you want to share, I would love to read them either in the comments below, or via email.

I am always weary of people who call other people heroes.

What does it mean anyway?

That was, until recently, my immediate thought when confronted with a hero-type statement. My response was a product of performative conditioning. Simply put, when we observe the same phenomenon over and over again, we associate it with those that perform it, thus leaving the concept itself — heroism in this case — unexplored. In essence, the performative conditioning, the fallacy that I have been committing when confronted with claims of heroism, was that I associated the motives and dispositions of the actors making the hero-type statement with the phenomenon of heroism itself.

In this series of posts, I will try to make sense of what makes a hero. My objective is to develop a nuanced understanding of heroism; one that can be called to facilitate the evaluation of hero-type statements of the sort: “George is a hero” or “George has committed a heroic act.”

Such was my attitude towards the act of calling someone a hero. In my defence, most of the people I know who casually refer to others as “heroes,” come from the religious right. More often than not, they juxtapose the term “hero” with the term “traitor.” One can be a hero, or at least try to be one, or else, she is possibly a traitor, or at least suspect of being one. Any unusual act that diverges from the spectrum of expected responses to given social stimuli, tends to fall in either of the two categories. This dichotomy makes me uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, recently I was talking with a friend about Edward Snowden. We were talking about the Nobel Peace Prize, and whether Snowden should have been the recipient of the award. During our discussion I casually made the statement that Edward Snowden is a contemporary hero and as such should have received the prize. I argued that Snowden has given up a very comfortable life for the common good — the detrimental effect that the “Snowden revelations” had on Snowden’s own life, and the positive outcome of the revelations were, at the time, sufficient conditions for me to classify the man as a “hero.” My friend challenged me and argued that there is no such thing as a selfless act, and as such we should disperse with the concept of heroism altogether. Although I am sympathetic to the view that no act is absolutely selfless, since it would assume that individuals are disembodied from themselves and abstracted from their social contexts, nevertheless I do think that some acts have motivations or outcomes that make them exceptional.

First, let me talk to you about the ideal-type hero that I dislike. In this formulation, the hero sets the gold standard. There is something biblical about a hero. A normal individual commits an “abnormal” act and becomes elevated to a demigod-status. Demigods have followers who define themselves in relation to the ideal man, the hero — a living embodiment of the superhuman. The ideal of heroism is usually defined in relation to some group-defining and often exclusionary characteristic. Sometimes this characteristic is ethnicity, other times is religion, and often both. The man — it usually is a man — who exemplifies these values through his actions, gets the badge of heroism. Most heroes of this sort, become heroes by upholding esteemed societal values through violent means, either because they have killed “the others” or because they have prohibited “the others” from killing “us,” which means that they have also committed acts of violence.

The concept of heroism as depicted above is part of a cleansing process. It purifies the man and his acts in order to ensure that the ideal image will survive and inspire others over time. Alas, the cleansing is also dehumanising for it detaches the human vices from the acts performed.

We need to step back and consider the term “hero” without purifying the actors and their motivations. In fact, the distinction of “motives” and “outcomes” of a heroic act will enable us to better understand what it is, in the end, that makes someone a hero.

In the next post, two examples will be explored to tease out our intuitions regarding the kinds of outcomes that merit the hero badge.