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

What does it mean anyway?

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.

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.

This is a part of a series of five posts on What makes a hero? Click to read them all.