Choose Your Hero

What makes a hero?

While it’s a simple question to ask, it turns out that people have vastly different ways of coming to grips with our literary traditions and heroism.

moritheil @edsizemore You know those stories where the mecha pilot is in space and smashes the monster to “save the people of earth”?

edsizemore @moritheil I see it as simplistic and not worthy of discussing. But remember my father is a retired Marine and I’m ex-Navy so discussions

edsizemore @moritheil of heroism tend to be a lot grounded than anything in mecha anime.

edsizemore @moritheil Fictional people dying for a fictional abstraction isn’t the way I define heroism.

I take it Ed (who actually writes a lot about fiction and manga) means to assert that real life examples are privileged, and cannot be compared to fiction. But I think there is an error in this thinking – fiction derives from real life. Moreover, fiction shapes society even as real world examples shape society – sometimes more so. Social identities, corporations, and nations are ultimately all examples of “fictional abstractions” that control the behavior of real people on a daily basis. To have any meaningful sort of discussion about our concepts of heroism in general, we must be able to talk about both real and fictional examples. We don’t equate the two, certainly, but refusing to talk about both reality and fiction for an ideal is tantamount to refusing to talk about the subject.

moritheil @edsizemore If you want a real example, we can talk about Roi Klein, but I’ll ask the same question.

moritheil @edsizemore Roi Klein jumped on a grenade to save his squad. Supposing it wouldn’t have killed them after all, is he then not heroic?

edsizemore @moritheil He is heroic, but note to save his squad, not all humanity.

moritheil @edsizemore Aha, and why is he still heroic? It’s his intent, isn’t it?

edsizemore @moritheil It belittles his sacrifice to compare him to a mecha pilot.

No, it does not.

The mecha pilot story is nothing but a pastiche of real world heroism. It is a construct woven together from the sacrifices of real people and the stories we tell about them. It invokes real life heroism, and depending on the whims of the writer, it may attempt to define it or clarify it. Inherent in the act of writing about heroism in fiction is the idea that it’s important and that we should honor it, or at least pay attention to it. In other words – apart from real world heroism, there is no mecha pilot story. It is literally composed of real heroism.  Obviously the story of someone being heroic does not benefit people in the way that someone really being heroic does, but no one is arguing that. Saying that it’s insulting to compare the two is forgetting just what the story is made up of, and what it does, which is examine heroism.  Both are intimately involved with our concept of heroism, and while one example is real and the other is not, for the purposes of discussion neither are somehow illegitimate.

Does it belittle Train Man, the anime otaku who stood up to some men hassling a girl, to have the novelization Densha Otoko written about him? Does it belittle him if there are other stories written of a man coming to a woman’s aid in a Japanese subway (as there no doubt are?) Or is it fair to say that it honors the importance of his example to retell the story with slightly (or even very) different circumstances?

Now, obviously people have associated concepts that have grown up around heroism – the idea that the hero is supposed to be effective, that he is supposed to slay the dragon and win the girl, and so forth. The whole reason many people like heroes is that they fix problems and make life better. These are the trappings of heroism, the Hollywood stories that we are all familiar with.

But liking heroes just for those reasons is selfish, and doesn’t require much thought. To examine the essence of heroism, we might change the conditions.  For example: what about heroes that screw up? Are they still heroes?

In Watchmen, Rorschach is Alan Moore’s deconstruction of the principled, costumed vigilante. Unhygenic, rude, and obviously out of touch with reality, Rorschach is a costumed vigilante that abides so strictly by his own honor code that when Adrian Veldt kills people and fools the world into uniting against a staged alien invasion, Rorschach insists that he will attempt to bring Veldt to justice. This, as Rorschach is fully aware, forces the hand of the nominal heroes into killing him to preserve secrecy.

By intent and effort, Rorschach is a hero: he patrolled the streets even when everyone else gave up out of expedience, and his simple belief was that one should stand for justice in any and all conditions.  He was willing to die for it. By actual results, since Moore heavily implied exposing the lie would result in global thermonuclear war, he could be said to be a delusional psychotic endangering the world. So which is he? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that he can be both. Heroism isn’t defined by results. The essence of heroism is one’s inner bearing.

Returning to Roi Klein, there are other ways to arrive at the conclusion that intent matters.  For example, the squad Roi Klein saved was full of Israeli soldiers who very likely shot some Palestinians at some point.  To the Palestinians, who regard Israel as stealing their land and holding it by force, this would make them evil oppressors.  Does this change Roi Klein’s heroism in jumping on a grenade for his team?  And what if I turn the example around again, and say that the Palestinians they killed were a particularly radical and violent group of terrorists?  Does that mean Roi Klein died for good men, and his action is again unambiguously heroic?  This can go on indefinitely and – importantly – is ultimately unknowable.  In the end, we are left with the man, the grenade, and the act – which I will choose to call an act of heroism.

Tim Maughan disagreed with this line of thought strenuously, and for several days.

timmaughan @moritheil i’d say that [Rorschach example] was idiocy and self-righteous inflexibility – not heroism. Like all extremists.

moritheil @timmaughan That is because you only care about the results. But the results, like dice, are fixed in a planned story.

timmaughan @moritheil – stop confusing heroes with extremists.

And that’s really the crux of it – there has to be something extreme about them, doesn’t there, or what sets them apart as heroes? Beyond that extremity, however, we look at intent to label one a hero instead of a villain, and things very often do not lead to their intended results.

I will say that heroes might in Tim’s terms be described as extremists that we are conditioned to like. But that, again, is our own context, and I don’t think it’s terribly helpful in getting at the abstraction of  the hero. Tim’s conclusion from Watchmen was that heroes don’t exist. I think that’s a bit like watching the Texas shore after the Gulf oil spill and saying white birds don’t exist. Does not finding an example of a pure white bird mean that you throw out the very idea of such a bird?  Sure, there aren’t any around – but it’s hasty to say that it’s an absolute impossibility and white birds should never be discussed as opposed to saying that due to conditions, we have no recorded sightings of birds which appear white.  The logician in the story who says at least one sheep is black on at least one side is the most strictly correct, even if he gets mocked for it.

botoggle But [Rorschach] wasn’t dying for justice, he died for his own self-satisfaction in the face of issues bigger & more complicated than him

The two are hardly exclusive.  Depending on which psychologists and economists you believe, that is often the impulse for justice. Having multiple reasons to take a course of action does not lend itself to an either/or statement about it. Why would we privilege one interpretation of events over another, as long as they both account for the facts?

edsizemore @moritheil How do [we] distinguish a hero from a fanatic? Who judges what ideas are heroic?

Why is it so crucial that everyone fit into one and only one category?  Can’t we accept that there is often more than one valid interpretation?  Can’t we accept that it’s not necessarily true that a hero is not a fanatic, or that a fanatic is not in some way trying to be a hero?

My interpretation of Watchmen is not that heroes don’t exist at all, but rather that they aren’t as we naively expect.  We refuse to recognize heroes because we have impossibly high standards for them. We burden our images of heroes with extra trappings that distance us from the core essence of the hero. What it takes to be a hero would put someone in very dire straits indeed, forcing them to make apparently irrational or seemingly impossible decisions on a regular basis and quite probably crippling their ability to relate to other people.

Indeed, every hero figure in Watchmen has this problem to some degree – Manhattan is too powerful and can’t relate to the common man, Rorschach refuses to budge on his principles even though it drives him to ruin, Comedian raped a woman who loved him and can’t talk to his resulting daughter, Nite Owl is strangely obsessed with having costumed sex because he hasn’t reconciled to that part of his identity, and so on.

We expected too much from them, that’s all. But when we attempt to re-imagine the hero, preserving only the essential elements, and discarding our preconceptions, it is possible we get mental whiplash, because what a hero would be in our limited world is very, very different from the pretty, sanitized picture we envision.

Published in: on September 6, 2011 at 1:37 PM  Comments (8)  
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8 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I noticed that all your heroes fight. I’ll just leave this here:

    • Certainly we can have an entire, separate discussion on whether the illusion of redemptive violence shades our concept of heroes, but I was hoping to discuss heroism without getting into that additional problem as well. 🙂

  2. As fascinating as this read is, I am finding myself inexorably drawn to one sentence from it:

    “Heroism isn’t defined by results”

    I think this is incredible simple sentence with huge ramifications, and it might be over-simplifying things. What if we are in a situation where the hero knows his reults are for the worst, even if others do not see that? Doesn’t a complete refusal of results open us up plainly to moral relativism in all facets? Often we identify heroes after we are allowed to examine the results, and I don’t think that’s necessarily unfair. We don’t have to look too hard at history to find examples of;

    Person is thought of as hero by himself/herself and others while in the midst of supposed “heroic” deeds –> later analysis reveals that those deeds are far from heroic.

    What does that mean for said example at the time? I don’t know. But it certainly may mean that we are now suffering for it.

    Rorschach is one hell of a complicated example. There are certainly cases where the act is worth more; think of the man who pulled a women from a burning wreck of a car thinking it might explode. The action cause her to break a leg. The car never exploded, and she should have probably been removed by experts, because in reality, it wasn’t going to explode. The man can’t be blamed for a lack of information, however (being in America, the woman, of course, sued the man).

    I guess all this meandering and pointless writing of mine simply which to imbue the idea that “hero” is a complicated title often always under revision, and considering their oftentimes lofty status, I don’t think that’s necessarily unfair.

    Cheers. 🙂

    • Not caring about your results at all is not really the same thing as not getting the results you thought you were going to get. I note that in your example you still give the man the benefit of the doubt, all the more so because it’s a reasonable pattern of thought: if the car explodes the woman will wind up dead, whereas if we move her she might get injured, but at least she won’t die.

      We try things. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. If being a hero is a matter of intent, either in part or in whole, then we can’t really look at results.

  3. Holy crap Batman, typos everywhere. I apologize.

    • No worries. Thanks for reading!

  4. Heroes…certainly an interesting concept.

    At first I thought of people who performed amazing feats, but those would be superhuman and we always have our “everyday heroes” like how we envision the fireman or policeman.

    Then I thought about people who performed brave acts for the sake of others, but wouldn’t a friendly gesture count as heroic from that motion as well?

    “Can’t we accept that there is often more than one valid interpretation? Can’t we accept that it’s not necessarily true that a hero is not a fanatic, or that a fanatic is not in some way trying to be a hero?”
    Seeking Google for definitions, I found:
    “A person, typically a man, who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities.”
    Sounds universal, but that doesn’t really fit my definition of a hero. I’m guessing that we each have our own perception of what a hero is.

    “We expected too much from them, that’s all. ”
    I usually picture a hero as a person who rescues someone or the cliched “run into a flaming building to save a person” or “jump onto a bomb to shield others” kind of thing, but

    “For example: what about heroes that screw up? Are they still heroes?”
    I guess they can still be recognized as heroes, but society wouldn’t really accept the fact that a person is a hero unless the act succeeds.

    Defining a hero can range in perception by a ton, from the smallest things to the wildest actions.

    • I think it can be a question of context. As an example, you mentioned a friendly gesture, which is trivial to most people, but could be the result of a heroic effort by someone with crippling shyness.

      And I think it’s telling that you first think of superhuman and impossible examples. We are influenced that way, and I ask: do we expect that, and in so doing, expect too much from our heroes in real life?

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