This might be the best quote about my class and my teaching that I’ve ever read:
Dr. Kohen is working really hard to make our class think about what defines a hero and said something along the lines of “heroes are not people featured on CNN who had a bake sale, something, something, yell, yell”. Generally, I agree, but I also think people aren’t as smart as Dr. Kohen and don’t necessarily want to subject themselves to the mental work it takes to define heroism.
Alas, it comes in the middle of a blog post about how heroism is entirely subjective (except that of Odysseus, which strangely might be objectively heroic somehow). The same blog post also offers the following list of the student’s heroes:
whoever directs Bud Light commercials that feature puppies
reporters who actually do their intended purpose
people who dance to Whitney Houston full force no matter the situation
There’s no explanation of why these individuals, occupations, and animals are heroes to the list’s author; it’s simply a list. And its creation, apparently, is meant to demonstrate that heroism is subjective, that it depends on personal opinion, as well as time and place.
In other words, the fact that “if others made their own list it would look nothing like” this list means that heroism is in the eye of the beholder. But why not simply argue that it means the maker of this list is clearly mistaken when it comes to heroism?
There isn’t anything even remotely heroic about Kanye West, people who direct beer commercials, people who dance to Whitney Houston, or puppies. And everyone knows this. To claim that puppies are heroes is to denigrate anyone on the list who might actually have done something heroic. To list all teachers as heroes suggests an unwillingness to be bothered with the difficult task of separating out those teachers who take heroic action from those teachers who merely go through the motions.
I’d argue, then, that it’s certainly possible to come up with a subjective list of things you like and call it heroism without any discernable reason. People do that all the time. But that doesn’t mean you’ve proved heroism is subjective, just that you’re not yet prepared to do “the mental work it takes to define heroism.”
Who are some actual living heroes? Here’s a list to rival the one I quoted above:
The Dalai Lama
Saad Eddin Ibrahim
Aung San Suu Kyi
These are people who faced the fact of their mortality, who took serious risks and/or overcame major hardship, and who did so in service of a principle. That’s heroism.
[You can read more from me on heroism and subjectivity here and here.]