What Makes a Hero Heroic?
For as long as I can remember, popular culture has presented me with many individuals who I am supposed to idolize as heroes. Cops and lawbreakers, politicians and revolutionaries, religious figures and heretics, scientists and artists, and more have all been presented as ideals I should admire and aspire to emulate, but there are some glaring inconsistencies between many of these groups. Books, films, and television are full of rebels, freedom fighters, whistleblowers, and outlaws who are celebrated and presented as heroes, but in reports on current events I see the same kind of people portrayed as dangerous threats to civilization. I see people celebrating Star Wars or Robin Hood while condemning any opposition to Barack Obama or Donald Trump as treason. Historical figures are either sanctified or demonized like a bad comic book caricature of good vs. evil in every conflict. Jingoism reigns supreme.
Self-professed "Lawmakers" and the people who claim to be "law enforcement" respectively legislate and enact the bad laws that many dissidents and protesters are supposed to be admired for violating. Are these rebels condemned for their actions, or because they oppose the "wrong" government? Jim Crow was "the Law," for example. We now rightly condemn the men who enacted and enforced those laws, and celebrate the people who broke segregation laws. At the time, though, such "criminals" were a "menace to society." Politicians also declare the unjust wars that we celebrate when "our" soldiers obey orders to wage them. At the same time, resistance movements and freedom fighters are often celebrated—unless these revolutionaries happen to oppose the policies being imposed by the government that claims to govern us, of course. How does this make sense? Why are there exceptions and excuses for some governments, but none for others, when the same injustices are being committed? Why are some outlaws and insurgents celebrated while others are demonized? We need a better standard of measurement than nationalism.
It seems to be a human instinct to imagine that there are Great Men who warrant a religious level of worship, and whose who serve the Great Men are champions to be admired, but this is antithetical to society, civilization, and progress. Merely enforcing laws, participating in military actions, or enacting legislation does not constitute heroism. The myth of democracy does not confer any real legitimacy upon the State. There is nothing heroic about obedience. Obedience is at best a neutral word, and there is no virtue in obeying the unvirtuous. I would argue that a heroic act must be virtuous in intent, and also must not a violation of the rights of others in deed. Virtue requires reason, and obedience is the surrender of reason to another. I would thus argue that a hero is one who strives for virtue in spite of circumstance, accepts personal risk in pursuit of his goals instead of seeking to externalize those costs, takes steps to promote liberty in spite of law, reveals information to the public in spite of government secrecy policies, and/or expands the sum of human knowledge.
Runaway slaves who took risk to gain freedom were heroic because they chose to pursue liberty rather than remain in unjust servitude. The operators of the Underground Railroad network were likewise heroic in thwarting the unjust regardless of legality. Explorers who pushed the frontiers, whether in literal geography or metaphorical knowledge, are heroes. Entrepreneurs who take risks to develop new products and services for the market are heroes. Even if we might disagree with someone's beliefs and actions, sometimes they can be heroic when it counts. The leaks by Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning were heroic. Cops who stand up against blatant police abuse are heroic, even though they are embedded in a system rooted in villainy. Dread Pirate Roberts was a hero when he/she/they created the Silk Road to make the black and gray markets safer. Satoshi Nakamoto was a hero when he/she/they created a new model for a decentralized non-governmental monetary system.
That said, I also advocate making a conscious effort to avoid hero worship. Heroes and villains alike are flawed humans, and their fallible humanity must not be ignored. An individual's intentions and actions must both be considered, flaws must be openly discussed, and idolization must be avoided. Think critically about anyone you are told to admire. By all means, admire virtue wherever it is found, but be aware that not all who claim virtue have it, remember that even the most unprincipled may occasionally exhibit virtue, and never forget that the greatest virtue is sometimes found where you least expect to find it.