"On the bell curve of humanity, villains and heroes are outliers," he said in a 2010 TED Talk to explain his Heroic Imagination Project.
What makes a hero? A hero, by general definition, is one who does good deeds above and beyond the call of duty. A soldier risking their life in war isn't a hero, as that's their duty; a soldier repeatedly placing themselves in the line of fire to rescue wounded comrades is. A whistleblower does the same thing, albeit they face a different kind of risk.
What inspires a hero? Heroes put others first. They eat last. They do whatever they can, even at personal sacrifice, so that others are safe and secure. They give the shirt off their back, even if it leaves them in the cold. Heroes are driven to sacrifice for the good of others.
Which is a bit like committing sociology.
We inhabit a laissez-faire capitalist system that rewards bluster, aggression and functionally-fixed determination to make the sale, get the win, close the deal. We look down upon, even dehumanize those who aren't successful at playing this game.
Scott Gilmore's recent (and much-criticized) article on why women need to hustle is a perfect example of this. Women, he argues, don't succeed at politics because they're not aggressive or selfish enough. That's a bad thing in politics - you need to be less about sociology and more about winning.
You can't have it all, he says.
No you can't. And we have a system that rewards those who want what they want and are willing to get it, whatever the cost to others, including family. After all, if you're wealthy enough you can just buy daycare.
Take a look at the current Conservative Government. They don't believe in heroes; they believe in success, in people doing what they're paid for and in utter self-reliance. Despite the number of self-proclaimed Christians in their Caucus, the concept of altruism and community don't seem to register with them in any manner beyond talking points.
So too the tough alphas on Wall Street - money buys them power and invincibility. It's there for anyone to take, but as nobody does, they take it for themselves.
Is it no wonder that selfish politicians and greedy businessmen are often stereotyped as bad guys in popular fiction?
Yet the reverse is equally true. For those fully engrained in the social model of laissez-faire capitalism, altruists are harmful to the greater good. They prop up the weak, meaning the weak never learn to stand on their own two feet. Plus, the rewards of success, even selfish excess, are earned. If anyone has a problem with that, that's what law suits are for.
To the selfish, what we generally identify as a hero becomes the villain, a rabble-rouser upsetting the social order. Especially because the aggressively successful people believe that selfish motivation is the only motivation, they read into the behavior of heroes and seek hidden agendas.
Because nobody gives away something for nothing, right?
The aggressively selfish and the compulsively altruistic are outliers. Most people just want to get by. They want peace, order, etc. As such they are willing to let a lot slide by, so long as they feel they're getting their relative due. Part of this includes getting away with whatever bits of selfishness they think they can, in small ways; racing yellows, leaving coffee cups on store shelves, sneaking in to the subway without paying.
The rationalization for this is that if it really mattered, there's be immediate consequences for such actions, or their are people paid to deal with such actions, etc.
Which is why we can be uncomfortable when called on for misbehaviours, small or gross. We look for ways to call those who challenge us hypocrites, so as to minimize the impact of their words and reinforce the status quo.
These consequences do not and cannot stop the heroes among us, nor will they be swayed by the possibility of being labeled the villain, the social disrupter. It's a compulsion, altruism, that stems from a sense that the whole matters more and that worth is something contributed to, not internalized.
We have a culture that, from top to bottom, seeks to tear down heroes. It's laissez-faire society at it's finest; for a hero to rise, they have to run and survive the gauntlet of social apathy that stands against them.
With one little caveat; secretly, we all long for heroes. We just don't want to be them. We imagine heroes to be super-human, even divine, able to take the weight of our responsibilities and our faults from us in passive fashion, so that we don't really need to make an effort ourselves.
Of course, there are no supermen out there to cure our diseases, punish our enemies in a way that doesn't invite retribution or absolve us of our sins.
There is only us.
And so, unfortunately, our heroes tend to be viewed as villains, or novelties. They do what they feel they must, and we do to them what we feel we must, so as to keep the deck chairs aligned, even if they stand on a burning platform.
Until, that is, they become something more.
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