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Sep 06 2013

No gods, no masters…and no heroes, either

I was reading Greta Christina’s piece about being disillusioned with heroes…and I was wondering why we keep propping up this hero thing.

We don’t need them. Ever.

I don’t need “heroes” to get my work done. I need colleagues and friends and peers and collaborators and partners. I need people to lead on some projects, and I need to lead on others. I need specialists and I need workers and I need assistants. I mostly need teamwork and a community of equals.

Think about every last job you’ve accomplished. The last damn thing you needed was a shiny nickel-plated figurehead striking a noble pose and freakin’ inspiring you. And I can’t think of anything more useless than getting placed up on a pedestal.

How about if we form a movement and shoo away all the goddamned heroes?

117 comments

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  1. 1
    Physics or Stamp Collecting

    I’m here for that movement.

  2. 2
    bhebing

    You are my her… oh wait, never mind…

    Anyway, yes, let’s form that movement. What is religion, other than the ultimate in hero worship? Kill yr idols, I’d say.

  3. 3
    dogberry

    I have certainly discovered some of my past heroes aren’t worth the trouble recently.

  4. 4
    screechymonkey

    I can’t imagine it’s fun for a lot of leaders or would-be leaders, either. I mean, sure, some people are probably egotistical enough to want to be put on a pedestal, but I suspect most would rather just be appreciated for the things they do well, and criticized when they screw up without the whole “YOU FAILED ME!!!!” heaviness.

  5. 5
    Inaji

    PZ:

    The last damn thing you needed was a shiny nickel-plated figurehead striking a noble pose and freakin’ inspiring you.

    Word. Heroism blinds people, it’s not a good thing. I draw inspiration from every day people, doing what they do.

  6. 6
    Anthony K

    How about if we form a movement and shoo away all the goddamned heroes?

    Clearly it’s because we do not yet know how to do that.

    Think about every last job you’ve accomplished.

    Oh, never done that. Accomplished a job, I mean. Not because of heroes, but because of managers. It’s systemic, see?

    I have some inkling that there are groups out there that know how to do what you’re wanting to happen. Frankly, I think it’s impossible if your base is mostly composed of WEIRD cultures, who tend to view behaviours like ‘insulting the meat’ as manifestations of tall poppy syndrome and therefore destructive. “We should celebrate and support our betters,” they say, “not tear them down!”

    It’s great to say “no heroes!” But saying it is not the same thing as actually internalising it.

  7. 7
    Lofty

    Depends on what you mean by “heroes” There’s manufactured heroes and there’s real heroes. Real heroes are usually indistinguishable from other ordinary people until they do heroic stuff. Then you can admire them for that, even follow their example.

  8. 8
    bcmystery

    “Leaders” are the ones who take all the credit, right? Do they do anything else?

  9. 9
    Jafafa Hots

    Some people get upset with me when I talk presidential politics. They talk about who they want as a “leader.”

    I tell them I don’t want a leader, I want a public servant, an elected representative kinda like the law says we’re supposed to have.

    They tell me I’m not being realistic.

    Got me in trouble in school too. I was never much of a follower.
    Followers need leaders.

    Question: is the need for a hero more prevalent in converts from religion to atheism than it is in those of use who never had any religious or supernatural belief, who just grew up without that crap drummed into our heads?

    Or are those who don’t need (or want or like) heroes and leaders all just social misfits and malcontents like myself?

  10. 10
    Inaji

    Whenever heroes are brought up, I think of Firefly:

    Mal: “Well, look at this! Appears we got here just in the nick of time. Whaddya suppose that makes us?”

    Zoe: “Big damn heroes, sir.”

    Mal: “Ain’t we just.”

    Heroes are just people doing the right thing.

  11. 11
    Anthony K

    Real heroes are usually indistinguishable from other ordinary people until they do heroic stuff.

    Oh, phew. For a second I thought there might be some confusion until you mentioned ‘heroic stuff’. But since we all agree on what exactly constitutes ‘heroic stuff’ it’s kind of baffling that there should be such things as ‘manufactured heroes’. Are they doing manufactured heroic stuff?

    What does any of this even fucking mean?

  12. 12
    Inaji

    Anthony K:

    What does any of this even fucking mean?

    I think sometimes people want so very much to be effective, to be able to influence others, that they easily hoist others onto a pedestal. There seems to be an abiding desire in humans for magic, for magical figures, for anyone to be there to take care of things.

  13. 13
    retinella

    It annoys me when the news media calls the police, firefighters, and other service\people as heroes. Yes, they help people and assist them, but the do it because it’s their job.

  14. 14
    rrhain

    I think that what we have here is a failure to communicate. I don’t know what you mean by “hero.”

    If you’re trying to rail against the argument from authority (“My ‘hero’ said/did/advocated thus-and-so, therefore it is right”), then that’s one thing. But I find nothing wrong with admiring other people and coming to trust their opinions such that you will pay attention to them when they speak or act. We are social animals and it is pleasant to know that you’re not alone, that there are other people who there who think and act as you do.

    That doesn’t absolve you of your need for critical thinking, of course, and this is why it is disappointing to find your “heroes” falling from grace. It makes your community of like-minded individuals that much smaller. It can cause you to question your own opinions. In and of itself, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there is a fall-out to that.

    So if you could please provide more detail about what you mean by “hero,” I would have a better understanding of what it is you’re trying to say.

  15. 15
    Anthony K

    I think sometimes people want so very much to be effective, to be able to influence others, that they easily hoist others onto a pedestal. There seems to be an abiding desire in humans for magic, for magical figures, for anyone to be there to take care of things.

    Look, I get what people talk about when they say ‘hero’. What I’m saying is that when actual discussions of what heroes are take place, everyone falls all over themselves to deny any sort of hero worship in themselves, and twist and contort the definition to mean anything but the actual problem we’re trying to deal with. We’re talking about heroes like Dawkins, on a blog by a guy people lovingly refer to as “our squiddly overlord.”

    I’m not kidding when I think WEIRD people are incapable of non-hero worship. We have no conception of what such a collection would mean.

    Heroes are just people doing the right thing.

    No. That’s some motivational poster-level bullshit right there. That’s not what anybody’s talking about when they say ‘no heroes’.

  16. 16
    Amphiox

    To make someone one’s hero is just another variation of putting a person on a pedestal.

    It is unfair and dehumanizing to all concerned.

  17. 17
    Anthony K

    So, are ‘heroes’ and ‘mentors’ totally separate things? Or are they regions on a spectrum?

  18. 18
    Rob Grigjanis

    screechymonkey @4:

    some people are probably egotistical enough to want to be put on a pedestal

    Yes, but that’s not the problem. The problem is the number of people who seem desperate to put someone on a pedestal. I was living in Edmonton when Wayne Gretzky was playing for the Oilers, and was astounded by the fawning gibberish in the media and from hockey fans. All they knew about him was clean-cut young man, wizard on the ice. And somehow that was enough to turn him into a fantastic human being.

    I had my own sports/literature/science ‘heroes’ as in my younger days, but I never confused their talents with their lives. Maybe that’s down to growing up in England in the era of George Best. Ta, Georgie.

  19. 19
    Physics or Stamp Collecting

    bcmystery @#8:

    If I want a group that’ll get something done, yes I want a leader. Someone with acknowledged authority and skill at getting a group to work together can help the group do the work more effectively and efficiently.

    I don’t want a leader who will push hard on their authority and lead by intimidation, no. But if my skills and theirs are aligned, and theirs happens to be pointing a lot of willing poeple in the same direction, I’ll be grateful that someone’s stepped up to herd the cats.

  20. 20
    Anthony K

    I think that what we have here is a failure to communicate. I don’t know what you mean by “hero.”

    Nobody does, apparently. But we all agree we don’t like them and shouldn’t have them.

  21. 21
    irisvanderpluym

    Yeah, I think women learned a long time ago — the hard way — that pedestals are not all they’re cracked up to be. For one thing, they’re inherently unstable.

    Jafafa Hots at 9: I have the same sentiments exactly. I never got the whole “leader” thing, especially with elected representatives. So Ima have to go with “social misfits and malcontents” like yourself.

  22. 22
    Lofty

    AnthonyK
    Superman., Spiderman, Bear Grylls, Putin, Dr Who etc. are all manufactured heroes. The guy who dragged a mother and her childern from the burning wreck is a real hero. The media tries damn hard to make him into a glitzy hero but rightly he shuns the limelight. Real heroes suffer from demons.

  23. 23
    cuervocuero

    Dang. Caine beat me to the Firefly reference.

    It’s ironic that people who get listened to when they say things that need saying about separation of church and state and the mythic origins of gods are listened to because they tend to belong to the Visibles, the privilege bearing members of society, with the subsequent blind spots and casual arrogance attached thereto.

    It’s a bit more ironic that once that speaking space has been established and the Less Visibles use it to expand on the initial truths, they are treated to the same invisibility encountered before the Visibles’ privilege plow turned over a row and that sowing into that fertile ground is something for which they still need to fight, often against the plowman zirself.

    Is heroism deliberately risking loss of safe haven for body and psyche to advance survival for self and others?

  24. 24
    Inaji

    Anthony K:

    No. That’s some motivational poster-level bullshit right there. That’s not what anybody’s talking about when they say ‘no heroes’.

    Okay. Well, looks like I don’t know what the fuck I’m saying, so I’ll just shut up.

  25. 25
    screechymonkey

    Rob Grigjanis @18

    I had my own sports/literature/science ‘heroes’ as in my younger days, but I never confused their talents with their lives.

    I’m a couple of chapters in to a biography of Warren Zevon, written by his friends and family, and one of the refreshing things about it is that it doesn’t attempt to whitewash him. (Or if it does, then he’s even more of a bastard!) Nor does it just blame everything on “the drugs.”

    Of course, you’d have to be particularly thick to have listened to Zevon’s music and not have figured out that the man was a little messed up….

  26. 26
    A Surprise to Many

    How about if we formed a community where people admired specific behaviors in other people, like lucid writing about evolutionary biology, or a career spent teaching in a Midwestern university, or community environmental advocacy, or starting a hospital for women who have experienced FGM? It is unrealistic and unhealthy to expect a lifetime of consistency and virtue from people whom we admire for their accomplishments, even if those accomplishments are very great, and the expectation of consistency feeds into the culture that conceals bullying behavior like Dawkins’ and potentially criminal behavior like Shermer’s.

  27. 27
    Anthony K

    Sure, lofty. But what does redefining the word actually have to do with issues we’re talking about?

    I get we’re mostly some kind of misfits here, and we have a tendency to de-pedestal famous people, but to think we’re immune to hero-worship and instead describing what we think real heroism is instead is just back patting. Hero worship, at least in my thinking, is an effect of living in a hierarchical culture. It comes out of just world fallacies and all that. We want or need to justify why some poppies appear so much taller.

    If we want to avoid heroes, we have to fundamentally change how we structure our society.

  28. 28
    consciousness razor

    Yes, but that’s not the problem. The problem is the number of people who seem desperate to put someone on a pedestal.

    And they might think they know what all of the real problems are, and why this person is the very embodiment of the solutions to them. Contrast the heroes with the villains who are the problems which need to be solved.

    If I want a group that’ll get something done, yes I want a leader. Someone with acknowledged authority and skill at getting a group to work together can help the group do the work more effectively and efficiently.

    I don’t want a leader who will push hard on their authority and lead by intimidation, no. But if my skills and theirs are aligned, and theirs happens to be pointing a lot of willing poeple in the same direction, I’ll be grateful that someone’s stepped up to herd the cats.

    What makes you think “leaders” ever do that? Why shouldn’t all of the “cats” take some responsibility to “herd” themselves? The implication seems to be that we just need one or a few people, out of the whole group, to actually do something. Even if that isn’t the idea, the focus still tends to shift toward what that handful of people does (good or bad), instead of the entire group and how it relates to itself.

    This is part of the reason I get so angry sometimes hearing people complain about politicians. (I’m in about the same boat as Jafafa Hots in #9.) What about all of the people who voted for them? What about the people who barely pay any attention, or don’t give a fuck, or if they care it’s not enough to learn and change their behavior? How could such “herding” (or “leadership”) possibly help that?

  29. 29
    Brony

    Heroes are an excellent candidate for cultural baggage to largely jettison. There is a far better alternative, role models.

    Heroes suck because they don’t really exist and so don’t do more for us beyond entertainment and broad cultural archetypes. Role models are better because they are flawed, and the flaws that they overcome make them realistic and suitable for comparison for the rest of us.

  30. 30
    thinkfree83

    As I mentioned on Greta’s post, I think that the reason for the insane level of personality cultism among movement atheists has to do with the fact that it is convention-centered, rather than community-focused. The entire point of going to a big name convention is to see the “heroes,” the “big name atheists,” and others who will pump the audience up and convince them to give to the national organization in question. The problem is that if atheism is to really succeed, there have to be real-life (not Internet) communities that make an impact on the lives on individual people on a regular basis. Conventions are too expensive for many people to attend, myself included. For most people, a convention is like a vacation, something you save up for and indulge in once a year, not something you make into a regular activity. Much of the bad behavior is happening at conventions, precisely because these events are seen as partial escapes from reality. Richard Dawkins et. al. could regain my respect if they would take some time off from the lecture circuit and use some of their money to built humanist community centers and other programs that would actually give ordinary people an incentive to stop supporting religious organizations or do something that would show that their primary interest isn’t hearing themselves talk.

  31. 31
    ludicrous

    Does anyone know what happens when you pluck god out of your psyche? Does it leave an empty space an empty feeling? Is it like a vacuum that wants to be filled? Does that hole in your head look around for a filler? Does that guy up there on the podium look like he might help fill the gap?

    Do psychologists investigate this possible dynamic?

  32. 32
    Hank_Says

    I just popped into Greta’s thread, and – hooo, boy – there was a fresh troll in there ticking all the damn boxes. Greta launched that chap into the sun in good order, though.

    Anyway, I went there to ask if I was the only one who’d noticed that the dudebro wagon-circling closely resembled Catholic apologetics in the wake of paedophile priest revelations. No, I don’t think a decades-old rape-enablement conspiracy is the same magnitude as former luminaries turning out to be rockstar prima donnas, creepers or even probable rapists, but in each case the behaviour of the defenders includes many of the same markers: incredulity, angry denial, invocations of dark conspiracies to destroy individuals or institutions and renewed commitment to the True Path.

    I also find it interesting that these same defenders of the non-faith find “verbal testimony years after the events” to be more than sufficient when deciding the credibility of an accusation of priestly sexual abuse and will happily crow about ensuing convictions, yet when faced with even a mild accusation that one of their heroes acted like a spoiled little shit and had an “enemy” Expelled™ (much less several confirming reports of actual sexual assault), the hackles raise and the demands for evidence (and concurrent denigrations of “hearsay”) become, might I say, deafeningly shrill and strident.

  33. 33
    irisvanderpluym

    Seconding Anthony K @ 27: hero worship is an emergent property of a hierarchical culture.

  34. 34
    consciousness razor

    ludicrous:

    Does anyone know what happens when you pluck god out of your psyche?

    What exactly is the question? If it’s in your psyche to begin with, what gives you the idea that you can simply “pluck” it out? I’d say it’s generally a much more gradual, complicated process, which isn’t entirely deliberate or conscious.

    Does it leave an empty space an empty feeling?

    It depends on what was there in the first place, which you’re referring to as “god,” doesn’t it? If you thought it’s a deity, then you thought it wasn’t just “in” your psyche.

    I personally don’t have a hole in my soul, or anything like that, because I think there’s no magic man in the sky. I do think that, because I believe there are no gods, I have to look at the world differently than if I thought were a god. The facts are different, so I should think about those facts differently. This is not even close to saying there’s a power vacuum which needs to be filled by an authority figure.

    But I can see how some people come to that kind of a conclusion, silly as it is. They could also reject any alternatives (even ones not in the form of an authority) or the validity/severity of those issues or thinking/acting upon them, because they’re so repulsed by the concept of authority itself. (Which is not to say their repulsion is the only or primary reason for non-belief in a supernatural authority, but that these reasons can easily be conflated or influence each other inappropriately.)

    Do psychologists investigate this possible dynamic?

    Yes. So do anthropologists/sociologists.

  35. 35
    Scr... Archivist

    PZ, this is another good post that has provoked some interesting discussion. I, too, wonder when we are ever going to change.

    But maybe you should have saved it for Thunderdome.

  36. 36
    Jafafa Hots

    I’m not kidding when I think WEIRD people are incapable of non-hero worship.

    I can’t parse this.

    (I’ve also never referred to anyone as a squiddly overlord, hero, my leader, and I can;t even recall referring to anyone as “someone I admire,” though that itself I don;t see a problem with in general. But then I’m an oddball who doesn’t even have “favorites.” No favorite book, movie, song, food. Ask me my “favorite” of anything and the best I can do is give you a list of “here are some that I like.”

    Maybe it’s just that I’m never really satisfied.

  37. 37
    Al Dente

    There are people I admire. For instance, Chesley Sullenberger, who landed a plane in the Hudson River, is worthy of my admiration for being an extremely competent pilot who reacted quickly and correctly in an emergency and then ensured all of the passengers were taken to safety before he left the plane. I consider Sullenberger to be a hero. I don’t know anything about his personal life nor do I care. If I were to hear about Sullenberger’s personality flaws, I might think less of the man but my admiration for his heroism will not be diminished.

    I admire Richard Dawkins as a writer of popular science book. However I do not admire him for his sexism or racism and I have decided not to buy any more of his books. He’s still a good writer but his personal failings mean I cannot support him monetarily. Even before I knew about Dawkins’ faults I didn’t think he was a hero. Unlike Sullenberger he hasn’t done anything heroic.

  38. 38
    dogberry

    Mind you, having read Carlyle, I understand that heroes serve a proper function for us all. It’s just a matter of latching on to one who won’t let you down. Some of mine have, horribly.

  39. 39
    miller

    Asking why we need heroes is like asking why we need stories. Sure, we don’t *need* them…

    You just need to remember, like stories, most heroes are false.

  40. 40
    No One

    Seems to me that a hierarchical culture is an echo of the familial “parents raising children” thingy. You have the big guys teaching the little guys. The little guys trust the big guys and in some form are in awe of and covet their power. I don’t know if we can escape that. Redirect perhaps?

  41. 41
    ThorGoLucky

    Sorry, Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman. {heave}

  42. 42
    Physics or Stamp Collecting

    CR @28:

    What makes you think “leaders” ever do that? Why shouldn’t all of the “cats” take some responsibility to “herd” themselves? The implication seems to be that we just need one or a few people, out of the whole group, to actually do something. Even if that isn’t the idea, the focus still tends to shift toward what that handful of people does (good or bad), instead of the entire group and how it relates to itself.

    I think that leaders can do that because I’ve seen it work in small groups where there are good intentions but little coordination. The leadership (and maybe this is the wrong word? I hate to lose what I think is a useful concept because most people don’t live up to the ideal though) I think is useful is emphatically not about only a few people doing something. It’s about bringing different skillsets and areas of enthusiasm into a coherent whole and encouraging a structure and a community. Some people are more skilled in facilitating connection and collaboration between people; some are good at seeing the big picture; some freeze when they have strategic problems but are amazing at tactics and more detailed work. I want my communities to value all these skills.

    Writing this out, I think that “leadership” as a skill and “leader” as a service are valuable concepts. “Leader” as a fixed role, in one’s own mind or in the minds of others, runs into the problems most people in this thread are discussing.

  43. 43
    Marcus Ranum

    What if a willingness to accept authoritarian dictates was a spandrel left for us by evolution?

  44. 44
    Marcus Ranum

    worthy of my admiration for being an extremely competent pilot

    Right! So you’d listen (maybe) to him about things regarding piloting. But would you adopt his choice in footwear? That’s what Nike is hoping…

  45. 45
    fmitchell

    Since some people are unclear on definitions, I might as well offer mine:

    Heroes are people who do something inspiring and then go on with their lives. Expecting someone to be “heroic” day after day in every aspect of their lives is a recipe for disappointment.

    Leaders are people who motivate people day after day, who organize and negotiate and compromise on tactics but not principles. Real leaders are rare. Mostly we make do with managers. Managers can organize; at best they can pick the right people for the right job and keep them happy enough to keep doing it.

    Great leaders and lesser managers alike sometimes labor under the delusion that they’re indispensable. Nobody’s indispensable. Gerald Weinberg’s _The Psychology of Computer Programming_ famously stated that any programmer who becomes indispensable needs to be fired immediately for the good of the organization. If an organization depends on one person, that organization has a fatal flaw.

    We may need teachers, even mentors when we first start out; as we gain experience we need colleagues and experts. Good managers make organizations run more smoothly, but above a minimum level of confidence anyone can do the job. Leaders are nice to have but not necessary. Heroes are better left to fiction and human interest stories.

  46. 46
    chigau (違う)

    thinkfree83 #30

    The problem is that if atheism is to really succeed, there have to be real-life (not Internet) communities that make an impact on the lives on individual people on a regular basis. Conventions are too expensive for many people to attend, myself included.

    The Internet is having an impact on the lives of people on a daily basis. It costs nothing like the cost of attending a convention and you can interact with vastly more and varied people.
    And the Internet is assuredly real-life.

  47. 47
    Rob Grigjanis

    Al Dente @37:

    I consider Sullenberger to be a hero.

    Why? Because he did his job well?

    If I were to hear about Sullenberger’s personality flaws, I might think less of the man but my admiration for his heroism will not be diminished

    Do you see the problem with that sentence? You’d think less of him than…what? Your assumptions?

  48. 48
    Amphiox

    There is a fundamental difference between “considering someone to be a hero”, as in Al Dente @37 with respect o Sullenberger, and “holding someone to be my hero” as is the spirit of the OP.

    The two are in fact completely unrelated phenomena, and it is only because of the imperfections of the english language that both are described by the word “hero”.

  49. 49
    AJ Milne

    It’s a serious question re humans and dominance/hierarchical behaviour. Not being my field, I’m at best curious. Searched through Google Scholar the odd time, but seriously, in this area, all I can really do is sniff test stuff…

    So, serious hordesourcing question: does anyone present know of serious work done on this they think solid? As in: to what degree do humans have an innate propensity to creating hierarchies/fitting themselves into hierarchy, or just say taking fixed follower/leader positions relative to others? How hardwired is it, is it even there at all or is it more a cultural thing, if pretty established/old as cultural things go (I figure this is plausible; we’ve had nation states and empires around five millenia now by my count, so these might be widely reinforced habits with a ton of stuff in literature and habit and institution and so on keeping it going quite without there being much in it wired in, and cultures prior to this could have been very different)? And for that matter, what’s the evidence like for what we were like before we had nation states and empires?

    I tells ya tho’, unless it’s seriously hardwired, as hardwired as, say, the ways colonial insects organize themselves, I doubt it’s a dealbreaker exactly for anyone trying to form communities and relationships of more egalitarian quality. We do have these marvelously plastic minds; the worst kinda news I’d expect on this is it’s subtle, pervasive, and making organizations trying to avoid such stratification continually at risk*, a habit we’ll always be working around at best, but fungible.

    (*/Copping to this: I kinda expect it’s to some degree innate. But I happen to be alive in 2013, and figure it could just be where I’m standing. Partly because I continually see would-be democracies constantly developing de facto oligarchies and cults of personality and so on within themselves, and figure, man, this sure looks like it’s oozing out of somewhere pretty well-stocked with the stuff.)

  50. 50
    Vicki, duly vaccinated tool of the feminist conspiracy

    It would be nice if “hero” was a verb: if the root concept was “acted heroically” and it was normal to say “Sullenberger heroed by making sure all the passengers were safe” and the normal noun for someone who did that was something like “hero-er” or “hero-izer,” rather than “Sullenberger is a hero.”

    I don’t think we’re likely to get there, in terms of how English, at least, is used, but I think it would help to think of “heroism” as the things someone does in a specific situation; even if they win medals or other awards for it, that doesn’t mean that it applies to their entire lives, that I should take someone’s advice on buying shoes because he’s a skilled pilot who made sure all this passengers got out safely.

  51. 51
    dogberry

    Surely a hero is an exemplar, who lives up to our ideals and inspires us to do the same. They may, and no doubt will, have personal faults and deficiencies, but they have to get it right in the one way that makes them heroic to us. Anyone who would stand up for fairness, justice and equality would do it for me, which is why I’m saddened when someone I believed to stand for those things proves to have feet of clay.

  52. 52
    thinkfree83

    @ chigau: I think I need to clarify what I meant. First, not everyone has access to the Internet. Most elderly people still use landline phones and telephone books. People in rural areas or an impoverishered urban centers also tend not to have regular Internet access, regardless of age. While it’s possible to get the Internet at the public library, you have deal with time limits and, depending on the library system, filters. The Pew Center’s Internet and American Life Project site is a good place to examine the statistics behind the digital divide.

    Second, for many people of color, especially those in poor, segregated areas, churches play several key roles. Many churches provide social services. In some cases, the churches may be the only institution that provides these welfare services. In Europe and Canada, the link between welfare and the church was severed with the introduction of government healthcare and secular public education. When social services were no longer church-based, interest in religion dropped. I don’t think this will happen in the US, given that “big government” is a bad word and the common belief that it is the role of religious organizations to care for the poor. Black churches also provide a safe haven, where you don’t have to worry about being stereotyped as a thug or a welfare queen or even about being that one black person in a crowd of white people. They also address issues like institutionalized racism, violence, prisoner rehab, and voter suppression, things that the atheist community by and large won’t touch (at least not in any organized fashion), because they aren’t “real atheist issues.”

    This isn’t meant to be a defense of black churches. Rather, I’m trying to show that they exist because they address issues that are important to their parishoners. If there were organizations with an explicit humanist/atheist bent that provided education, welfare services, and social uplift, then I think that we could really put the churches out of business.

  53. 53
    consciousness razor
    If I were to hear about Sullenberger’s personality flaws, I might think less of the man but my admiration for his heroism will not be diminished

    Do you see the problem with that sentence? You’d think less of him than…what? Your assumptions?

    It does kind of go unstated that these “heroes” are assumed to be great people otherwise, not just in regard to their… piloting ability, or whatever it is. Of course nobody wants to think they’re being biased in this way, or believe that about themselves when it’s pointed out, but we often are. Or we go even deeper down the rabbit hole, so that we’re not inclined to call it “bias”: we’ll say it’s about having an optimistic attitude about life or people, or some such thing. This only gets tempered a little by “disappointment.” But who appointed this person in the first place, to fulfill your optimistic attitudes? You did.

  54. 54
    Amphiox

    Surely a hero is an exemplar, who lives up to our ideals and inspires us to do the same. They may, and no doubt will, have personal faults and deficiencies, but they have to get it right in the one way that makes them heroic to us.

    And in that word, “exemplar” is the problem that PZ alludes to in the OP. Why must we put a human being in that position, to be an example and not just a human being? In the final analysis it is a form of dehumanization.

    Why do we need such a thing to inspire us, anyways?

    Can we not draw our inspiration from the ideal itself? Cut out the middle man!

  55. 55
    Jafafa Hots

    Mind you, having read Carlyle, I understand that heroes serve a proper function for us all.

    Us all, huh?

    I must be defective.*

    *in more ways than I already knew.

  56. 56
    The Mellow Monkey: Non-Hypothetical

    You know…this really is just the reverse side of something that’s been said a lot around here lately. It’s not good to other people who do terrible things, right? People aren’t evil or demons or monsters. They’re just people.

    The same holds true for the other side of the coin. People aren’t heroes. They could do something remarkable. You could admire them. But they’re just people. Just as a horrible act doesn’t wipe out someone’s humanity, neither do good acts.

    Humanity isn’t good. Humanity isn’t heroic. It’s just human.

    Someone can do something wonderful and also eat live kitten brains. Someone could do something awful and also have a lot of really great ideas that change the world for the better. One extreme doesn’t wipe out the other. We can accept that American suffragists did good things while also accepting that many of them were racist assholes. Their racism doesn’t wipe out the good they did, but the good they did doesn’t absolve them of their racism.

    People are just people. There are no heroes because there are no monsters.

  57. 57
    mildlymagnificent

    AJ Milne

    A good place to start is Bob Altemeyer’s The Authoritarians. http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~altemey/

    It’s an easy read … and then you get to the part about the really nasty folks where it starts to get scary. The nasty ones are those who take advantage of the fact that authoritarians are always looking for a “leader”. It’s all downhill from there. (The stuff about the global leadership game and how fast some people are ready and willing to blow the whole world up is an eye-opener.)

  58. 58
    chigau (違う)

    thinkfree83
    I understand.

  59. 59
    Rutee Katreya

    Us all, huh?

    I must be defective.*

    It’s tricky. I think people are trying to avoid sounding like we’re above those ordinary, puny humans and their need for hero worship. Sorry if you’re feeling excluded for it.

  60. 60
    kittehserf

    Think about every last job you’ve accomplished. The last damn thing you needed was a shiny nickel-plated figurehead striking a noble pose and freakin’ inspiring you.

    It’s the underpants on the outside that gets me. Oh, wait, that’s superheroes.

    The “hero” thing really gets me grinding my teeth when it’s applied to sportspersons (or should I say sportsmen since it’s seldom applied to women). Every goddamn twit who can kick a ball through extremely widely-spaced posts is called a football hero here. Never mind the extreme rape culture, never mind the drug scandals, never mind them attacking disabled people – they’re heroes!

    ::hurl::

  61. 61
    mildlymagnificent

    Brony

    Role models are better because they are flawed, and the flaws that they overcome make them realistic and suitable for comparison for the rest of us.

    Well they would be if people used the term that way, but in common parlance “role model” is used exactly the opposite way. As a person who is admirable in every way rather than for a specific talent or skill.

    Just look at sports people. When swimmers or athletes or footie stars here act up in entirely predictable ways (predictable for young people out on the town or whatever) the media and the public come down on them like a ton of bricks for their failures as “role models”. Their only real public role to model is as a fast swimmer or strong jumper or for nifty footwork and accurate kicking and their commitment to years of training to develop those skills. But that’s not where they’ve failed. It’s as a person to be emulated in everyday life.

  62. 62
    Sophia, Michelin-starred General of the First Mediterranean Iron Chef Batallion

    Is it just me, or does it strike anyone else that the idea of putting someone on a pedestal and attempting to handwave away their flaws as a distinctly lazy way to go about things? Not just the idea that you’re being intellectually lazy by trying to make the person out to be perfect, but also because of the underlying reasons we prop people up in the first place. Heroes, in one of the traditional definitions, are people we wish to emulate – they’ve done something we believe to be very important and we wish we could too.

    That wishing is a huge problem. When we put people on pedestals we’re creating a divide between them and us – giving them power they don’t actually have. That divide is perceived ability. “They did this amazing thing, I -wish- I could do”, not “They did this amazing thing that I should work towards trying to do.” If we start elevating people above ourselves, we lose the human connection, that we’re all (in general terms) equally capable of doing amazing things, and this person just happens to have been proactive.

    I’m all for holding up -behaviour- as admirable, but I’m more interested in using that as an encouragement to emulate that behaviour, not stare at it in blind awe. Blind awe does nobody any favours. Holding up people? Useless, and actually harmful as those people stop being people and start being cardboard cutouts of their good bits.
    That said, I’ve not seen any bad behaviour from Sir Patrick Stewart yet. He’d be the closest thing I have to a hero, but I’m under no illusions that he’s as human and flawed as the rest of us. And I don’t have a shrine to him. The closest I’d get to that would be to buy the Star Trek: TNG DVDs.v

  63. 63
    Jafafa Hots

    Someone can do something wonderful and also eat live kitten brains.

    I personally knew a guy who came across an injured raccoon in the road in the middle of the night and sat cradling it in his lap while the person with him drove miles to find a wildlife clinic that would be open and accept the poor raccoon.

    He (kind of unadvisedly) was crying over the poor raccoon, burying his face in the fur. If I recall, raccoon survived.

    Another thing this guy did was rape and murder many women.

    People are people. Not matinee idols.

    There was another guy, widely respected worldwide and particularly in the US on both political sides who got up in front of crowds and cameras, held up a little bag of talcum powder or whatever, and said we needed to invade Iraq.

    Heroes are in movies.

  64. 64
    pierremenard

    What if a willingness to accept authoritarian dictates was a spandrel left for us by evolution?
    It certainly might be. But it also could of been easily selected for, being a social creature and all that.

  65. 65
    pierremenard

    The “do we need heroes?” seems like a rather unhelpful question. On the one hand we could assert heroes are metaphorically crafted out of marble and then declare that there are no heroes. On the other hand we could say that heroes are admirable people with significant or petty flaws and conclude that such a thing does exist. Either way the question doesn’t seem very useful except as a way to ridicule others. There aren’t any serious people who think there are perfect people out there, so it’s not really a problem.

  66. 66
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    Thhhhhaankyou!

  67. 67
    Goodbye Enemy Janine

    Heroes-Jill Sobule

  68. 68
    rrhain

    I’m surprised I didn’t immediately think of this:

    I Don’t Believe in Heroes Anymore

  69. 69
    thinkfree83

    Since the grenade happened, this scene from the classic sitcom “Designing Women” has been going through my mind:

    SUZANNE: We all have heroes who disappoint us, it’s just a fact of life. I used to be totally wild over Anita Bryant. I wanted to walk like her, talk like her……I even wanted to have her hair.
    CHARLENE: You do have her hair.
    SUZANNE: Thank you! But then she got off on the homosexual thing, and it just kinda turned me off, y’know. I mean, she became obsessed with it and stopped showing up at pageants. And for what? I mean, it wasn’t like she was some homely girl who had to worry about all the homosexuals stealing all the good-looking men, or anything like that. And y’know, the last time I saw her, even her hair looked kinda deflated.
    CHARLENE: What’s your point?
    SUZANNE: I forgot. What’s the question?

  70. 70
    AJ Milne

    mildlymagnificent/#57: Thanks; I have read Altemeyer, a few times, even. I’m not sure how specifically he addresses this particular question, but I guess he does emphasize there is variation through the population in how people relate to authority, I guess, and that there definitely are environmental/nurture-type influences, so I guess that’s something, anyway.

    Guess I’m really looking for more. And a bit more detail aimed at just how wide the variation is, how far you can push the needle over, and can you keep it there? The practical question is ultimately about the sustainability of egalitarian forms of organization. Can people keep them going? How? How do we stop creeping ‘oligarchization’ and the concentration of power, if we can… But anyway, yeah, true, it is a good start, that.

  71. 71
    F [i'm not here, i'm gone]

    pierremenard #65

    There aren’t any serious people who think there are perfect people out there, so it’s not really a problem.

    No, no one ever trades on past acts considered to be heroic to attain more power or anything like that. People never claim that Great Person X thought some particular thing, and that you should think it too. Above all, these ploys never work. Right?

    Right?

    Hero-worship isn’t a real thing, which is why we don’t have a ready phrase to describe it.

  72. 72
    pierremenard

    #71 F [is for failure to emerge]

    I’m not sure what your post has to do with mine.

  73. 73
    bad Jim

    I’m fond of heroes like Richard Feynman who aren’t afraid to exhibit their flaws. As a physicist he had few peers, but he doesn’t seem to have been a very good drummer. Few of us are as smart as he, but we’re also not so strange. We all remember, don’t we, that Einstein and Szilard invented a refrigerator with no moving parts and licensed it to Electrolux (Einstein didn’t need a patent attorney, having been an examiner). Heroes reveal possibilities we’ve never considered.

    Odysseus was a great hero, of course, but he was stuck on an island with Calypso for seven years while Penelope was wearily fending off suitors. Whether he enjoyed it may be beside the point, since he wasn’t allowed to leave, but Poseidon certainly treated him better than the average sailor.

  74. 74
    bad Jim

    Some years ago I attended a performance by the Tokyo String Quartet. It’s a fine ensemble, but also notable because the instruments they play were made by Stradivari and then collected by Paganini. At some point the fire alarm went off and we had to evacuate. Of course someone voiced the concern, “What about the instruments?” Heroes don’t have to be human.

  75. 75
    yubal

    Blessed be the nation that does not know heroes.

  76. 76
    yubal

    http://gimundo.com/news/article/the-man-who-saved-the-world-by-doing-nothing/

    For the record. I do not claim heroes don’t exist. I advocate for a world where they are not necessary.

  77. 77
    MadHatter

    As social creatures we always have a hierarchy in any group. But that doesn’t necessarily mean having a hero in the sense that we seem to use it today. I wonder how much that particular need/concept has grown out of living in larger and larger social groups (cities instead of villages or tribes) where we don’t personally know the people we may choose to look up leaving us somewhat surprised when they have flaws.

    Which is odd when you consider the hero ideal in the mythological realm that it originates in. All of the heros in myths have flaws and part of the point of the story is that they manage to overcome their flaws, or triumph in spite of them.

    As I’m writing this I think that the concept (except as a verb) can’t be applied outside of that mythological realm. Heros are there to teach us something specific, I don’t think that works in the real world.

    But…we still need leaders. We are social critters after all, and part of what leaders need to do is encourage or inspire people to want to work towards a common goal. I think the inspiration step, in larger groups where the leader isn’t personally known as well, is likely to result in that sort of hero worship. Other than awareness of the phenomenon within ourselves I’m not sure how you avoid that in any sort of movement (though honestly I’ve never been part of any “movement” so I could be blowing smoke).

  78. 78
    Nick Gotts

    As social creatures we always have a hierarchy in any group.

    Citation very much needed. I consider this a deepity, with a good deal of evidence to the contrary from small-scale societies: see for example Christopher Boehm’s Conflict and the Evolution of Social Control, and references therefrom. (Boehm concedes the existence of within-family power differentials, but your claim is disproved, if he is right, in that small-scale societies have powerful social mechanisms to prevent the emergence of inter-family hierarchies.) I also question your deepity from personal experience – I have over my lifetime belonged to numerous groups of friends or acquaintances in which no such hierarchy was discernible to me. Of course you can make your claim unfalsifiable by insisting that there is always a hierarchy even if it’s not obvious, but then it becomes unscientific and uninteresting.

  79. 79
    Nick Gotts

    Sorry, the quote in my #78 is from MadHatter @77 – probably obvious in this case, but I’m trying to stick to the standard of always giving comment number and name.

  80. 80
    scimaths

    Hero worship, at least in my thinking, is an effect of living in a hierarchical culture. It comes out of just world fallacies and all that. We want or need to justify why some poppies appear so much taller.

    I don’t think it’s anything to do with just world fallacies, but everything to do with the fact that the particular kind of hierarchal culture we have is a patriarchal one. Men needing to believe that they are really gods/heroes: invent gods/heroes (male of course) – worship gods/heroes – declare everyone who doesn’t worship your gods/heroes to be the enemy – declare yourself to be just like your gods/heroes – declare women and other lesser humans to be non-heroes at all times.

    Yes, once this is established as a cultural patternit will propogate in many forms and both women and men will get sucked into it. But that is a secondary effect, not the driver for the establishment of those figures in our cultural history in the first place.

    If we want to avoid heroes, we have to fundamentally change how we structure our society.

    Yes, that’s what feminism is for.

  81. 81
    Maureen Brian

    I am simply cheering along both Nick Gotts @ 78 and scimaths @ 80. OK?

  82. 82
    Walton

    I can’t think of anyone I really regard as a “hero”. I certainly don’t think there’s much hero-worship of PZ round these parts; the “squidly overlord” thing is and has always been tongue-in-cheek. For what it’s worth, although I usually now agree with PZ on issues of feminism and anti-racism, I have long said that some of his rhetoric about religion is insufficiently nuanced and decidedly unhelpful (I won’t give examples here because I don’t want to derail the thread), and I can think of multiple occasions in the last couple of years when I’ve strongly criticized him in comment threads.

    Dawkins is very good at explaining evolutionary biology, and I will continue to recommend The Blind Watchmaker for that reason alone. However, I’ve made clear on multiple occasions (recently here) that I think much of his rhetoric about Islam and Muslims is toxic, sociologically ignorant, and dangerous. (I think the low point was when he endorsed Pat Condell.) He may be a great biologist, but he’s a terrible sociologist, and suffers from Dunning-Kruger when it comes to the social sciences. And his petty, juvenile and assholish behaviour towards Rebecca Watson, which did not surprise me all that much, is an additional reason to dislike him.

  83. 83
    brucegorton

    I think a part of the problem is the way we think of heroes.

    I grew up on the Quest for Glory games, and the sort of heroic ideal included there.

    It is good to recognise good. We tend to focus a lot on the things going wrong with the world, and sometimes it is good to remind ourselves that a lot of people out there may be flawed, but they are trying to do good, and that is the value of having heroes.

    People who take risks to make a better world, give the rest of us just that little bit of a glimpse of that better world.

    I am not too sure Dawkins has ever really done that.

    I mean he took some risk arguing for ‘New Atheism” as it became called, and challenging religion, and it would be a mistake to forget the value of what he has contributed, but when I think of heroes?

    I tend to think of people like Rebecca Watson, who has taken on a lot of risk to do the right thing in challenging sexism within the movement, I think of Leo Igwe and the risks he’s taking to challenge witch-hunts in Nigeria, I think of Zachie Achmat and his founding of the TAC.

    To a large extent our movement is a victim to how it has been portrayed. Our foremost faces have been traditional voices of authority – tweedy white first world males. These are our celebrities, and yet when you think of our actual heroes, the figures who genuinely inspire us towards better?

    A teenage girl fighting theocracy in her school, an Indian doctor who challenged con-artists by re-performing their “miracles”, the Bangladeshi bloggers who challenge both the evils of extemists and the corruption of their government.

    We need those heroes because they remind us of the best of who we are, we don’t, however, particularly need celebrity idols.

  84. 84
    consciousness razor

    Nick Gotts, #78:

    I probably agree with your main point, although I haven’t read Boehm’s article yet, so I won’t comment on it. I just want to address how you said this, since it’s a little ambiguous:

    Of course you can make your claim unfalsifiable by insisting that there is always a hierarchy even if it’s not obvious, but then it becomes unscientific and uninteresting.

    1) I wouldn’t say being “non-obvious” is the same as being unfalsifiable or there being no possibility of evidence in support, since the sciences study plenty of things which are far from obvious. That of course includes the nature of human relationships, which I’m sure on any account would be an especially murky example.
    2) It might be there is always some kind of hierarchy in groups (doubtful as we both find it), and that simple fact of universality wouldn’t constitute unfalsifiability, as I’m sure you understand. But it isn’t clear on what grounds you’d object if the issue were pressed. It wouldn’t be convincing to cite your intuitions about your friendships and so on, for example. And the fact that groups have ways to (intentionally or not) prevent it (at least from getting completely out of hand) doesn’t imply it’s not still present despite their efforts.
    3) Given some of your past comments (and because I’m trying to be charitable), I’m reading this as a conjunction of both unscientific and uninteresting, as opposed to unscientific therefore uninteresting. I suppose I’d still agree that, if there’s “hierarchy” even among groups of friends like some of mine (or yours, since our experiences sound similar), this waters down the concept so much that it’s not exactly interesting. Not “Love”-is-just-a-word uninteresting, but (if it were science) probably not the most exciting science either.
    ———
    scimaths, #80:

    I don’t think it’s anything to do with just world fallacies, but everything to do with the fact that the particular kind of hierarchal culture we have is a patriarchal one.

    Why not both? If not a just world, simple optimism and wishful thinking would do the trick to explain parts. People seem awfully happy that (they think) there are heroes. I don’t get the sense that it’s all simply about authority (or patriarchy) or that this happiness is about their (perceived) need for authority being satisfied.

  85. 85
    carlie

    People generally learn by example.
    When there are examples of people doing what we consider to be good, we hold them up as examples to learn from.
    The problem is in thinking that since that person was good for that example, they must be good at everything else too.

    As for “they’re not heroes, it’s their job”, well yeah, but it’s the job they chose. Hey, here’s a job that has a high probability of killing you every time you do it, so do you want that one or another one? They choose it, and continue to choose it every day they stay in that job, and choose to do their job well and take risks rather than hanging back and doing the minimal amount required to keep said job. You can argue whether or not “hero” is the right word to use, but I find it ridiculous to say that a person should get less credit for being a good example because they’ve decided to help people every single day as their life’s work rather than being than someone who does it once on the spur of the moment.

  86. 86
    thinkfree83

    @ brucegorton: Your post made me wonder what exactly has Dawkins done that would make him heroic in the first place. He’s certainly not the first or the last Oxbridge professor who’s an open atheist, so it’s not like he’s taking a big risk by professing his non-belief (I don’t even think Bertrand Russell was the first). He’s not the first scientist to do a punches flying defense of evolution or a take down of religion. All of this has been done before and will be done by others. There is no rhyme or reason as to how some people become famous and others don’t, when they are all doing the same thing. I think people who are actually risking life and limb to expose religious cons or stand up to big names (whether in religion or atheism) are heroes to me.

  87. 87
    Ichthyic

    How about if we form a movement and shoo away all the goddamned heroes?

    you’ll have to figure out a way to eliminate authoritarian personalities from 30% of the human population before that will do any good.

  88. 88
    Nick Gotts

    consciousness-razor@84

    I wouldn’t say being “non-obvious” is the same as being unfalsifiable

    Nor would I, and I don’t see how my #78 could reasonably be interpreted as asserting that equivalence, in context. MadHatter tossed out:

    As social creatures we always have a hierarchy in any group.

    without any attempt to provide evidence or argument, as if it was something that was trivially or obviously true. I was providing prima facie evidence that it is not true, and said:

    Of course you can make your claim unfalsifiable by insisting that there is always a hierarchy even if it’s not obvious, but then it becomes unscientific and uninteresting.

    so I’m saying if MadHatter came back with something like:

    You may not have recognised the hierarchy, but it’s always there.

    (i.e. insisted) that would make the claim both unfalisfiable and uninteresting. If MadHatter came back with counter-evidence, I agree that would be different, and I could and perhaps should have made that explicit.

    or there being no possibility of evidence in support, since the sciences study plenty of things which are far from obvious. That of course includes the nature of human relationships, which I’m sure on any account would be an especially murky example.

    True, but if there are cases where members of groups deny the existence of a hierarchy, and appear to do so sincerely, you’d have to define what you mean by there being a hierarchy as well as bringing evidence to bear. For example, suppose you find that there’s an ordering of “interruptability” in a group: A interrupts everyone more than they interrupt hir, B interrupts everyone except A more than they interrupt hir, and so on. That would be evidence of a hierarchy in that group, but not necessarily conclusive: perhaps it turns out that nevertheless, Z, who is bottom of the “interruptability hierarchy”, nevertheless gets their way over where to go to eat more than anyone else, or gets their ideas about how to structure a task into subtasks adopted more often than anyone else. MadHatter’s claim that there is always a hierarchy implies a generality that would then be missing. As PZ says:

    I need people to lead on some projects, and I need to lead on others.

    Or as the anarchist Bakunin put it:

    In the matter of boots I defer to the bootmaker.

    It might be there is always some kind of hierarchy in groups (doubtful as we both find it), and that simple fact of universality wouldn’t constitute unfalsifiability, as I’m sure you understand.

    Indeed. There were no rabbits in the Cambrian, but this claim is falsifiable: a single well-attested rabbit fossil in undisturbed Cambrian strata would falsify it.

  89. 89
    consciousness razor

    Nor would I, and I don’t see how my #78 could reasonably be interpreted as asserting that equivalence, in context.

    I was quite certain we were already on the same page. I still felt like a little clarity might help, partly so there’d be something a little more definite for MadHatter to respond to, but also because we do get people saying the same things, except with the sort of meanings I was interpreting and criticizing.

  90. 90
    everbleed

    My brother in law pushed 14 men into a blast tunnel at the Richmond Chevron Refinery when it went bang a few years ago. Literally. He had worked there over 30 years and knew the sound he heard when the valve ruptured. He sounded the first alarm. He was the last one in the tunnel. Those 14 men and all of their families and friends know he was a hero. No one else does because the story was never told. He was extraordinarily humble. He merely considered it his job. (He is dead now, almost surely due to the toxins he lived in at the refinery.) As for me, I have interviewed four WWII pilots for the Veterans History Project. While doing so, my 15 year old daughter was the camera operator and interviewer for two of them. She met, listened to, and got to know… (just a bit), really good people who did really good brave things.

    Do my daughter and I ‘worship’ heroes? No. Do we respect and appreciate them? You bet.

    More importantly we hope our children see in them examples of good. We need them. They inspire. Give hope. Set ideals. Establish moral code. Enlarge the Earth by trying to save Her.

    Worship? No. Learn? Yes. Standards? Yes. Codes? Yes. A caring for the future? Yes.

    Heroes are OK.

    It’s just better to know the real ones….

  91. 91
    everbleed

    Warning…. Asshole action approaching… skip to next post…. except for…

    AJ Milne

    Please contact Keith Augustine at Internet Infidels. I am confident he is a trusted intermediary. Mention ‘everbleed’. He will give you a message.

    Thank you,
    Bleed

  92. 92
    Trickster Goddess

    Oh, won’t someone please save us from the heroes?

  93. 93
    anbheal

    In my boyhood bedroom I had five posters on the wall: Bobby Orr, Bill Russell, John Lennon, Mick Jagger, and Neil Armstrong. I’m disappointed to learn that they were mortal. But it was also a Catholic household, and on each bedstead of each bedroom hung a little round replica of Raphael’s Madonna & Child. That’s the one that inspired me the least. And he’s the immortal. Hmmmm.

  94. 94
    maddog1129

    I have a couple of personal thoughts about heroes.

    The first was something I heard on a Joan Baez record, which was songs interspersed with comments about politics involving her husband at the time, David Harris, who was sentenced to prison as a draft resister. One of the comments Harris made was about the difference between heroes and idols. He posited Marilyn Monroe as an example of an icon, someone who is held up and admired for being something that no one else can be. A hero, on the other hand, as he explained, is someone who can be held up and admired as an example to show us what each of us can be and do. I always liked that comparison. Idols are sui generis, and don’t provide anything from which a lesson for ourselves can be taken. Heroes are ordinary people, who show us that we can, as other ordinary people, do things that we were afraid to do, or didn’t think we could do.

    The other thought I’ve entertained for a long time has to do with how we learn and study history. It’s the famous names that come down through history as “heroes.” Mostly, those names consist of kings, rulers, military generals and the history is about war, violence and conquest. I prefer to think not of the famous names, but the untold numbers of un-named people who have made civilizations possible. It is only because there have been enough laborers and farmers who have raised enough crops and food to sustain a civilization that we can have specialization enough to support an artisan class, an aristocratic class. The only way you get famous generals at the head of armies is if somebody is doing the dirt work of raising the food to sustain a large population. Those un-named people are the real heroes of the story, without whom there would never have been the opportunity for the achievements of a supported class, who had leisure enough for education, art, literature, and other pursuits.

  95. 95
    Naked Bunny with a Whip

    Now I’m going to have a Tina Turner song in my head for an hour.

  96. 96
    David Marjanović

    Question: is the need for a hero more prevalent in converts from religion to atheism than it is in those of use who never had any religious or supernatural belief, who just grew up without that crap drummed into our heads?

    If so, it’s not absolute: I grew up religious and lack the need for a hero.

    Or are those who don’t need (or want or like) heroes and leaders all just social misfits and malcontents like myself?

    Could be.

    Heroes are just people doing the right thing.

    …Doesn’t that make the word as meaningless as it was under Fearless Flightsuit, when it meant “dead American”?

    How about if we formed a community where people admired specific behaviors in other people, like lucid writing about evolutionary biology, or a career spent teaching in a Midwestern university, or community environmental advocacy, or starting a hospital for women who have experienced FGM? It is unrealistic and unhealthy to expect a lifetime of consistency and virtue from people whom we admire for their accomplishments, even if those accomplishments are very great, and the expectation of consistency feeds into the culture that conceals bullying behavior like Dawkins’ and potentially criminal behavior like Shermer’s.

    I like that.

    Heroes suck because they don’t really exist and so don’t do more for us beyond entertainment and broad cultural archetypes. Role models are better because they are flawed, and the flaws that they overcome make them realistic and suitable for comparison for the rest of us.

    I think you just changed the name. I don’t think I’ve ever had or needed a role model.

    The problem is that if atheism is to really succeed, there have to be real-life (not Internet) communities that make an impact on the lives on individual people on a regular basis.

    What do you mean by “succeed”?

    And… #Neuland.

    humanist community centers

    Do not want.

    But then I’m an oddball who doesn’t even have “favorites.” No favorite book, movie, song, food. Ask me my “favorite” of anything and the best I can do is give you a list of “here are some that I like.”

    *raises hand*

    Same for me. I can say “here are some of those I like best”, but making such a list exhaustive is pretty much impossible.

    And for that matter, what’s the evidence like for what we were like before we had nation states and empires?

    Uh, there are still cultures out there that have never had such things…

    As social creatures we always have a hierarchy in any group.

    I’ll join the doubters. It seems like hierarchy emerges only when group size surpasses about 150, the number of people you can (easily) know in person. But of course I forgot my source. *sigh*

  97. 97
    Ichthyic

    As social creatures we always have a hierarchy in any group.

    this is not only untrue for humans, it’s untrue for many many species.

    There’s actually been significant research into the evolution of egalitarianism, you know.

    the observations are common enough that modelers have even gotten involved:

    http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/266/1417/361.abstract

  98. 98
    Ichthyic

    If so, it’s not absolute: I grew up religious and lack the need for a hero.

    this is exactly why I say it’s a feature of authoritarianism, not religion per se.

    religion itself has been co-opted by authoritarians because of the value it has as a tool for group cohesiveness.

    this stuff is pretty clear, and I keep wondering why it even needs repeating any more.

  99. 99
    dogberry

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QereR0CViMY

    What more can I say?

  100. 100
    thinkfree83

    @ David Marjanovic: When I mean by atheism “succeeding” is for it to be the dominant narrative in society or at least a strong competitor. For atheism to really be “succeeding,” I would think that they would need to be as common as to find in Mississippi as Methodists or Baptists. Atheism isn’t even the dominant narrative in Western Europe. I would categorize most of those countries as being “secular Christian,” since they may not believe any of the dogma, but it still colors their culture and their outlook on society. I bring up the possibility of humanist centers, because I’ve read a lot of blog posts that ask why there are so few out black atheists without considering the historical and sociological forces that keep these religious organizations operational. If you don’t address the reasons why people go to church (and many of them have nothing to do believing in God), then nothing will change.

  101. 101
    mouthyb, Vagina McTits

    Oh, I think heroic behavior (which I define as the willingness to risk oneself for the benefit or survival of others) should be highlighted, but as an act. I aspire to heroic actions. Not as a doormat, but as the willingness to put the collective before myself in certain types of situations.

    I have no use for heroes in the formulaic sense, but every use in the world for people who are willing to be heroic if the situation occurs in front of them.

  102. 102
    cm's changeable moniker (quaint, if not charming)

    DDMFM:

    It seems like hierarchy emerges only when group size surpasses about 150, the number of people you can (easily) know in person. But of course I forgot my source. *sigh*

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number

    ?

  103. 103
    keithm

    #13

    It annoys me when the news media calls the police, firefighters, and other service\people as heroes. Yes, they help people and assist them, but the do it because it’s their job.

    You were aware that the majority of firefighters in North America don’t actually get paid, don’t you? That it isn’t, in fact, their “job”. They crawl out of bed at 3 in the morning in a blinding snowstorm to go the the assistance of someone who needs help, or straps on 60 pounds of gear and voluntarily enter an environment that will kill them within seconds if their protective equipment fails, most for no compensation other than the knowledge they’re trying to help others, and they risk their own lives to do so.

    And the ones who do get paid? Most of them don’t do what they do because it’s their job: they have the job because it allows them to do what they do.

    Whether that makes them heroes or not, that’s for someone else to decide. But don’t think for a moment the vast majority are doing it just for the paycheck and because it’s the in the job description.

  104. 104
    Vijay Kumar

    #13 retinella

    Before saying that firefighters are not heroes,Why don’t you try carrying dead babies out of burnt out buildings?Why don’t you try holding the hand of a mangled person still trapped and alive in a car wreck?
    Why don’t your try living with flashbacks of such memories for the rest of your life?
    Why don’t you try doing ANY goddamn job that requires you to perform an extraordinary act of courage?

    Once you have done even ONE of these and still think that you didn’t do anything heroic, ONLY THEN you dare say that a firefighter is not a hero you shameless, self-absorbed freak of a human being.

  105. 105
    MadHatter

    Sorry to those that answered me. I’m not very used to this comment form of discussion yet :) Icthyic @97 I don’t seem to have access to that journal and I would be interested to read it. A perusal of related articles show a lot of discussion about self-organization of groups which doesn’t really negate a the idea of a social hierarchy though. I’ll absolutely admit this is not really my area of expertise. However, the hero concept certainly does appear in social groups that have very distinct hierarchical organization. Do you see it appearing in the egalitarian societies that someone else brought up? Quite honestly I don’t have time to go back into my mythology books as I have a modeling talk to finish (that’s completely unrelated).

    I’ll just bow out of this discussion with that in mind. There’s no way I can keep up. Back to lurking.

  106. 106
    alasdhair

    Whatever did happen to Lenny Bruce?

  107. 107
    dogberry

    With respect to comments # 3, 38, 51 and 99 – I was referring to PZ as the hero in question. Now you know why I am disillusioned.

  108. 108
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    I was referring to PZ as the hero in question.

    Why are you holding PZ as a hero? Or anybody for that matter.

  109. 109
    dogberry

    Nothing wrong with heroes, o nerdly one, and just because PZ has declared them PNG doesn’t mean they no longer exist. Do think for yourself now and then – which is why I posted the Life of Brian clip. Am I now supposed to type “FLOOSH”? One can be an innocent independent thinker, you see. Try it. You might like it.

  110. 110
    keithm

    Do you see it appearing in the egalitarian societies that someone else brought up? Quite honestly I don’t have time to go back into my mythology books as I have a modeling talk to finish (that’s completely unrelated).

    The most “egalitarian” society that I’m most familiar with, Canadian Inuit, certainly have the heroic concept in their stories and legends.

  111. 111
    Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls

    One can be an innocent independent thinker, you see. Try it. You might like it.

    I am an independent thinker. No heros either. They aren’t needed. Think about that independently.

  112. 112
    dogberry

    I did, but your posting record, including the modified epithet ‘FLOOSH’ suggest that you have not.

  113. 113
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    How about if we form a movement and shoo away all the goddamned heroes?

    But who would lead such a move… Oh, wait… Never mind.

  114. 114
    Thumper: Who Presents Boxes Which Are Not Opened

    @everbleed #90

    Do my daughter and I ‘worship’ heroes? No. Do we respect and appreciate them? You bet.

    And that right there is the difference. I, and I think almost everyone here, respect, admire, and appreciate PZ, but we don’t believe him to be incapable of doing wrong, and aren’t afraid to call him on it when he does. Indeed, part of the reason I admire PZ is because he is capable of doing wrong, but very rarely does so. And when he does, it’s a poorly worded sentence at worst.

    Contrast that with the Shermer fanboys doing their utmost to pretend he never did anything wrong and there’s no chance he ever could have. That’s hero worship. When a person moves from being a “good human being” to an “infallible human being”, that’s when hero worship has kicked in.

  115. 115
    abb3w

    @49, A J Milne

    So, serious hordesourcing question: does anyone present know of serious work done on this they think solid? As in: to what degree do humans have an innate propensity to creating hierarchies/fitting themselves into hierarchy, or just say taking fixed follower/leader positions relative to others? How hardwired is it, is it even there at all or is it more a cultural thing, if pretty established/old as cultural things go (I figure this is plausible; we’ve had nation states and empires around five millenia now by my count, so these might be widely reinforced habits with a ton of stuff in literature and habit and institution and so on keeping it going quite without there being much in it wired in, and cultures prior to this could have been very different)? And for that matter, what’s the evidence like for what we were like before we had nation states and empires?

     

    While some expression is certainly cultural, given that chimps and bonobos have what appears from the frame of human observation to be some tendency to heirarchy, it seems likely to be at least partly hardwired into the genetics firmware we share with our last common primate ancestor.

    I suspect “hero” may be one of those useful but imperfect heuristic shortcuts that humans have evolved. A recent talk on the psychology of religion mentioned how remarkable and useful it is that humans can imagine a conversation with a person who isn’t standing right there. I wonder if “heroes” function to harnessing this modeling system for moral guidance — “what would ______ do”; in which case falling heroes may involve triggering cognitive dissonance of the actual person not matching the morally idealized internal model, which may be reconciled by quick/cheap denial of the incident and/or granting heroic exceptionalism (cf. TV Tropes “Protagonist Centered Morality”), or the much harder/costlier means of doing more reflective thinking on morality.

  116. 116
    David Marjanović

    When I mean by atheism “succeeding” is for it to be the dominant narrative in society or at least a strong competitor. For atheism to really be “succeeding,” I would think that they would need to be as common as to find in Mississippi as Methodists or Baptists.

    I see, thanks.

    I’m not sure if I even care about getting there. After all, nobody has commanded me to go forth and deconvert all peoples. What I care about is secularism.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number

    ?

    *facepalm* Thanks, yes, that’s it! And I managed to forget it had a name!

  117. 117
    abb3w

    Oh, and afterthought…

    @0, PZ:

    How about if we form a movement and shoo away all the goddamned heroes?

    Seems too likely to implode when people start competing to heroically shoo away the most heroes.

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