Our Complicated Relationship with Heroes

It’s not really surprising that we think more about heroes in times of adversity. Many of our most famous superheroes were born in the crucible of crisis: Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and Captain America were all created during the Great Depression or the early years of World War II.

Today, we are again craving heroes. They are fabricated out of less fantastic stuff: taxi drivers who give free rides to the airport for patients, nurses who staff the front lines of our hospitals, chefs who provide free food to essential workers and a centenarian (as of tomorrow) who is raising millions for his national health care system by walking around his garden every day.

These are ordinary people who are doing extraordinary things. They are being raised to the rank of hero thanks to the surging tides of social media.

Again, this isn’t surprising. We are still in the early stages of what, for most of us, will likely be the defining crisis of our lifetimes. We desperately need some good news.

In fact, everybody’s favorite paper salesman/CIA operative/husband of Mary Poppins — John Krasinski — has curated a weekly webcast collection of feel-good salutes to local heroes called “Some Good News.” As of the writing of this post, it had collectively racked up close to 50 million views.

Krasinski has himself become a hero by doing things like throwing a surprise virtual prom for all the grads who were derived of theirs by the pandemic, or letting a group of ER nurses take the field at an eerily empty Fenway Park.

Having heroes should be a good thing. They should inspire us to be better people  — to become heroes ourselves. Right?

Well…

It’s complicated.

On the surface of it, hero worship is probably a good thing, especially if our heroes are doing things we all could do, if we were so inclined.  “If a 99.9-year-old man can raise millions for a national health service, there must be something I can do.”

On that very theme, the Heroic Imagination Project was formed to help us all be heroes. Headed up by famed psychologist Dr. Phillip Zimbardo, HIP came out of his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. “If,” reasoned Zimbardo, “we all have the capacity to be evil, given the right circumstances, we should also all have the capacity to be heroes, again under the right circumstances.”

But there are a few hurdles between us and heroism. One of them, ironically, comes part and parcel with the very idea of hero worship.

In an extensive analysis of how superheroes reflect the American mythology of their own times, Dublin writer Sally Rooney shows how a country uses its heroes to reassure itself of its own goodness: The superhero makes sense in times of crisis. Reducing the vast complex of nationhood into the body of an individual means periods of geopolitical turmoil can be repackaged as moments of psychological stress. In the mirror of the superhero, America is reassured of its good qualities. Physical strength is good, as is the ability to make wisecracks under pressure. Masculinity is good, and women are okay as long as they can do very high kicks while making wisecracks. Once America is on the scene, order can be restored.”

So, we use heroes as a moral baseline to make us feel better about collective selves. They can help us reaffirm our faith in our national ideologies. A picture of a nurse in scrubs silently staring down a protester demanding a haircut makes us feel that things are still OK  in the heartland of the nation. It’s a reverse adaptation of the Lake Wobegone effect: “If this person represents the best of what we (as Americans) are, then the average can’t be all that bad.”

Unfortunately, this leads right into the second hurdle, the Bystander Effect: “If something happens that demands heroic action and there are a lot of people around, surely there’s a hero in the crowd that will step forward before I have to.” Being a hero demands a certain amount of sacrifice. As long as someone else is willing to make that sacrifice, we don’t have to — but we can still feel good about ourselves by giving it a like,  or, if we’re truly motivated, sharing it on our feed.

As the greatest real-time sociological experiment in our lifetime continues to play out, we might have yet another example of an unintended consequence brought on by social media. Based on our Facebook feeds, it appears that we have more heroes than ever. That’s great, but will it encourage us or keep us from stepping up and becoming heroes ourselves?

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