Critical Thinking as Purposeful Questions
IS A HERO DEFINED PRIMARILY IN TERMS OF A PROFESSION? INTENT? SUSCEPTIBILITY TO UNCOMMON DANGER? BELONGING TO A GROUP WE ADMIRE?
IS A POOR PERSON A HERO ONLY WHEN SERVING IN THE MILITARY?
Nothing in what I am about to say should suggest that we do not benefit from awareness of heroes. Their behavior and choices exceed our current reach. That gap between them and us can propel certain people to realms of achievement that we would not have even attempted in the absence of their model.
But as with many virtue terms (here consider the explosion of uses of “awesome.) , overuse squeezes the ethical juice out of the concept. I no longer use the term nor do I understand what someone intends when I hear it used by others. I flat out have no confidence the word possesses any clarity as communicative oomph.
On the extremes, we can all spot a hero. The members of SEAL Team 6 are heroic; I am not. Yet, I hear myriad uses of the term that are little but recognition that someone did a common ethical act that most of us might almost unthinkingly do on one of our better days.
I thought at one time that maybe a hero was someone who knowingly incurred particular dangers, ones that would terrorize a normal person. But enduring danger cannot be the standard for heroism, can it? Poor people regularly encounter dangers that I would probably be crushed by. Visit Caracas, New Orleans, or Cape Town, and you will quickly sense that violent crime and poverty are positively correlated. Moreover, crime is but one of a torrent of dangers that poor people endure. Inter alia, they are treated to disproportionately large doses of toxic pollution.
Our culture does not regard the poor as heroes, does it? So then, I thought of the poor people who ARE called heroes. Maybe by identifying their key attribute, I can infer what the designation means in our culture. A non-hero becomes a hero, or so I am led to believe by the public encomia for people in uniform, when she or he joins the American military. Desk clerks and snipers on a 3-day solitary mission in terrain where you and I would dare not go-- each is accorded hero status.
Our soldiers are said to be heroes for preserving our freedom. Which freedom? Are we to presume that American soldiers have cognitively wrestled with the intricacies of liberty? Abraham Lincoln eloquently pointed out in 1864 that “freedom” is a concept in search of a clear meaning:
The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty, and the American people, just now, are much in want of one. We all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not all mean the same thing . . . The shepherd drives the wolf from the sheep’s throat, for which the sheep thanks the shepherd as a liberator, while the wolf denounces him for the same act as the destroyer of liberty .. . Plainly the sheep and the wolf are not agreed upon a definition of the word “liberty.”
Finding little heroic in soldiers’ relationship to freedom, I thought that maybe the idea that someone would willingly engage in dangerous acts on behalf of the community might be what was being termed “heroic.” But I could not find any evidence that those who join the military have a reflective understanding of the level of danger they are potentially experiencing on behalf of others. In fact, I think there is substantial evidence that almost all of us are very poor at estimating the risks associated with particular activities. (See especially the first chapter of Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky, RISK AND CULTURE.)
Eventually, I encountered evidence suggesting that most people join the American military for very prosaic, non-heroic reasons. Hence, the automatic achievement of hero status because a person at one time was in the American military remains a mystery to me.
MUST ONE BE PAID TO BE A HERO? HAVE WE PRIVATIZED THE HEROIC SUCH THAT NON-MARKET DANGERS ARE NOT AS SOCIALLY SIGNIFICANT?
DO YOU USE THE TERM, AND WHY WOULD YOU? IS THERE NOT A MORE PRECISE WAY TO SAY WHAT YOU ARE TRYING TO DENOTE?