Heroism is defined in many different ways, but most people tend to agree that it embodies several key traits: that the act is voluntary, that it is done in the service of people or communities in need, that it is done without the need for recompense of personal gain, and that it involves some type of personal risk. A hero would be, then, a person who commits heroic acts.
The problem with this definition (much of which was pulled from the Heroic Imagination Project—a non-profit that teaches people to become heroes in their daily lives), is that so much of it relies upon the motivations of the individual—motivations which may not become clear for days, weeks, or decades after the act was committed.
In the same vein, people might commit numerous heroic acts, but might actually be terrible people. History is littered with such examples: Winston Churchill was a key player in the subjugation of much of Africa to the British Empire in the late 19th century. Susan B. Anthony fought stoically for the right for women to vote, but did not believe that that right extended to blacks. Even Mother Teresa—a literal saint—allegedly held close relationships with dictators and withheld care from the sick, practicing what one journalist called the “cult of death and suffering.”
So, if there’s no way of knowing for sure what the motivations were of the hero, how do we know they’re really a hero? At what point is the harm someone committed no longer passed over because of a few good acts? When do we remove the designation of “hero,” and—for that matter—when do we award it in the first place?
When we award titles based on the intentions of the individual, we run the very real risk of celebrating the wrong kind of people. We praise people in our society who we think embody the values and actions of a hero, only to later find out that the praise may have been too much too soon.
At best, this is an example of the need for relativism in the designation of a hero. At worst, this is reason to not call anyone a hero at all—to only, perhaps, hail the actions as heroic because of the good that it caused, instead of adding the hero label to a man or woman who is, after all, only human, and may very well sully the title.
I am so fucking sick of everything being relative. In many ways, the fatally-flawed, fundamentalist Christian, “black and white” style of thinking was so much easier for me to embrace, because it never involved the constant re-questioning, reconsidering, reevaluating perspective that more secular—or perhaps just more accepting—philosophies embrace. In short, religious fundamentalism was nice, because I didn’t have to think as much. I could make blanket statements about an act or a certain type of person, and know that I was right, because the bible said so. I felt like a shitty human being, but that was because all human beings were shitty, and at least I knew that would never change.
But that’s not how the world works. Truly black or truly white situations are precious, oftentimes bizarre irregularities, and reality is much more a grisaille than a silhouette.
So, maybe, it’s time that we stop calling people heroes, and instead call their acts heroic. Maybe it’s safer to celebrate the actions taken, and to believe that there is no such thing as a hero, after all.