Not long ago, I happened upon the blog of Scott Allison, a professor of psychology at the University of Richmond. Allison has co-authored one book on heroism and he has another on the way.
This bit, from a blog post last month, is from a forthcoming journal article (as well as the forthcoming book):
Below is the taxonomy of heroes that we propose in Understanding Exceptional Leadership. We elaborate on these ten kinds of heroes in an article that will appear this summer in Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Goethals & Allison, 2012).
Having thought quite a bit about heroism myself over the past few years, I’m incredibly curious about this taxonomy of heroism that Allison proposes … in no small part because it seems so clearly wrong to me in so many ways.
First of all, some of the categories don’t seem at all useful or well thought out.
The idea of the transposed hero, for example, suggests that someone can still fit into a category of heroism when (s)he becomes a villain. LeBron James is the example here, presumably because of his skill as a basketball player and his infamous Decision. But the example doesn’t really work because James isn’t really a hero in the first place. There’s nothing heroic about being good at sports and there’s nothing villanous about pursuing free agency; he likely inspired a lot of people and then disappointed some of them, but a whole lot more would ned to be said before anyone could make that seem either heroic or villainous. The same is true of the category of the tragic hero, which is where Tiger Woods and King Lear apparently fit. I know very well what’s tragic about Lear and Woods … but what’s heroic about them?
And then there’s the category of the transcendent hero, which is where we put someone who transcends categories of heroism. If you’re following along at home, that means there’s a category for people who don’t fit into categories. And the best examples? Jesus, Harry Potter, and John Wooden. First of all, Jesus is likely transcendent because he’s considered by a great many people to be divine. But, looking at the taxonomy itself, he actually fits perfectly well into either the traditional hero or the transforming hero category. Harry Potter likewise would fit comfortably into these categories. And John Wooden? Well, leaving aside the fact that John Wooden and Jesus aren’t at all similar, I suppose I’d say he’s a transparent hero … given that people in that category are described as firefighters, police, health workers, parents, coaches, and soldiers.
Or there’s the trending hero, which the taxonomy above suggests involves people who might be trending toward or away from heroism. What that means, though, is that these people aren’t curently heroes. These are people, apparently, like Lady Gaga and Woodrow Wilson. Apart from the fact that Gaga and Wilson have nothing whatsoever in common, it’s interesting to see that Gaga is the example of a hero who is trending toward heroism and Wilson is the example of a hero who is trending away from heroism. Whatever you think of Lady Gaga’s music, she has been an impressive advocate for the lgbtq community. But this doesn’t mean she’s trending toward heroism; it might mean that she’s trendy and that she’s using her considerable celebrity to help others (which might be considered heroic). And Woodrow Wilson? What was heroic about Wilson in the first place and what did he then do to move away from those things that initially seemed to make him heroic? If I was listing heroes, I can’t imagine that Woodrow Wilson would appear on any list … not because he trended away from heroism, but because he just wasn’t heroic in any way.
Of course, I’m not the first to critique the heroes who appear on Allison’s list. Here's how Allison responds to criticism of some of the people who have been profiled on his blog:
We receive a lot of feedback about the heroes we profile on this blog and, not surprisingly, many of the comments are a bit critical of the worthiness of the heroes we choose to include here. You can read these comments and see for yourself. The heroes whose merits have been especially questioned are Justin Beiber, Betsy Ross, Tiger Woods, Mother Teresa, Secretariat, Bill O’Reilly, Lady Gaga, John Nash, and Christopher Columbus.
Some of our selections have evoked puzzlement; some annoyance; and some even anger. Some readers have suggested that we are diluting the integrity of the word “hero” by using it to describe certain categories of people, such as celebrities or athletes.
If you haven’t read our book, our definition of a hero is quite clear. Put simply, we don’t have one. The reason? Heroism is in the eye of the beholder. We’ve asked hundreds of people to list their heroes and to provide reasons for labeling someone as a hero. After studying these lists, we see that our taste in heroes is as varied as our taste in music, movies, and paintings. Defining a hero is like defining a good meal at a restaurant. It depends on your values and your personal preferences.
This seems strikingly terrible to me in a wide variety of ways. To say the heroism is perfectly relative means that absolutely anything that anyone thinks is heroic is, in fact, heroic. That means that suicide bombers can be heroes and serial killers can be heroes and torturers can be heroes. Some people might admire these sorts of people, but that just means they admire the wrong sorts of people; it doesn’t make those people into heroes. But what’s even stranger is that, if you keep reading just a few more sentences, you’ll discover that Allison actually does have a definition of heroism:
After polling a number of people, we discovered that heroes tend to have eight traits, which we call The Great Eight. These traits are smart, strong, resilient, selfless, caring, charismatic, reliable, and inspiring. It’s unusual for a hero to possess all eight of these characteristics, but most heroes have a majority of them.
This directly contradicts the notion that “Defining a hero is like defining a good meal at a restaurant. It depends on your values and your personal preferences.” Would Allison be prepared to defend someone’s choice of Osama Bin Laden or Timothy McVeigh as a hero? If “most heroes have a majority of” the “Great Eight” characteristics, why does Allison suggest that heroism is perfectly subjective? If your personal hero doesn’t have any of these characteristics, wouldn’t Allison have to concede that (s)he probably isn’t a hero?
What’s more, why does Allison then attempt to defend choices like Justin Beiber, Tiger Woods, and — worst of all — Secretariat?
My sense is either that Allison mistakenly conflates celebrity with heroism or else that these “heroes” are being featured on his blog in order to attract readers. Perhaps he really thinks that Secretariat and Betsy Ross are heroes. Quite simply, if you have a bunch of posts profiling the likes of Justin Beiber, Lady Gaga, and Tiger Woods (along with their photos), people are going to visit your website. That’s how Google works.
But they’re not heroes.
Now I don’t think that the traits put forward by Allison — which aren’t his own, but came from “polling a number of people” — are necessarily the traits of heroes. But that’s neither here nor there: I’m not going to critique Allison by saying this his definition of heroism doesn’t match my own. Instead, I’m going to critique him by saying that, by his own definition, the heroes he profiles aren’t actually heroes.
Tiger Woods is a very good golfer who cheated on his wife with a number of other women. Can it really be said that he’s “smart, strong, resilient, selfless, caring, charismatic, reliable, and inspiring”? Though I wouldn’t personally use any of these words to describe him, it’s clear that some people look up to Woods — or, they might have when he was better at golf and wasn’t known all over the world for cheating on his wife. That said, the real question at the heart of the Woods example is whether or not it’s heroic to play golf very well. I submit that it isn’t.
Some people really enjoy Justin Beiber’s music and/or think he’s attractive. But again, I’d like someone to make the case that he’s “smart, strong, resilient, selfless, caring, charismatic, reliable, and inspiring.” He’s famous, certainly, but so are Paris Hilton and the Unabomber. Does a measure of fame equate with heroism? Again, I submit that it doesn’t.
And Secretariat? That’s a horse. Secretariat ran around a track. If there was no track and no jockey, then Secretariat would have run around somewhere else. Horses run; it’s what they do. This particular horse was faster than other horses. Did people look up to Secretariat? Almost certainly not. Did they enjoy watching this horse do what horses generally do. Sure. Is that heroic? Not in any way.
Frankly, to pretend that the people (and animals) who are featured on Allison’s website are heroes throws Allison’s entire project into doubt. By and large, these are not people who make the sorts of choices we want others to emulate (and, of course, the animals aren’t making choices at all). They’re generally not risking anything or helping others; in some cases, they’re actually hurting others. Mostly, they’re just famous. Allison has gotten all sorts of attention for his work, precisely because the pop culture nature of his examples are positively begging for people to read what he’s written. But the idea that Allison has written must-read work on heroism makes things much more challenging for others who are teaching and writing about heroism. The people he chooses to profile generally aren’t heroic, but far worse is that he tries to defend those choices by appealing to the relativistic notion that heroism is entirely in the eye of the beholder.