The Myth of the Lone Hero
Last year, a disturbingly large number of incidents involving lone gunman here in the United States dominated the headlines. Any sane person would have to wonder why. Can anything be done to prevent such things? The tragic events at a Colorado theater in July, and at a Connecticut elementary school in December, were especially disturbing. The latter was quickly followed by the shooting of firefighters near Rochester, New York. I expect such things will continue.
I think our gun violence problem is far more complex than just the easy availability of guns, although that is certainly a big part of it. Guns are the means, but the motives for such acts involve culture, psychology, economics, and possibly even biology. These are difficult things to change, but perhaps we can at least recognize them. Culture seems a good place to begin.
Americans, well, some Americans, have an unrealistic and overly glamorous concept of ‘individualism.’ There is meme in our culture that one man (usually a man and often with a gun) can right wrongs, solve problems, protect the weak and defend the innocent by simply taking a determined (and violent) stand against evildoers. It’s evident in our movies, pulp novels, and other stories.
I think this is how many of the worst offenders in cases of gun violence see themselves. They are taking a stand against something they regard as wrong, allowing the meme of the lone hero to completely overwhelm their ethical instincts and their reason. They don’t see themselves as villains. They see themselves as heroes or perhaps as victims, and they may be somehow rationalizing their sick delusions on the mythic figure of the lone defender of justice.
Lone heroes are fine icons for fiction, and we all like to cheer for them, but in real life, no one is that self-reliant. Each of us is the result of tens of thousands of years of biological, cultural, and technological development. We are dependent on the invention and labor of many people who have worked together to do things we could never accomplish alone. Even if we are stranded alone and naked on a desert island, we still hold within us a storehouse of knowledge, painfully acquired by others and passed down to us in a variety of different ways. We are who we are because of the contributions of others, including many who are currently alive and others who are long dead. From a philosophical perspective, we have never been and we will never be alone.
Yet our culture perpetuates and glorifies the myth of the lone hero. From our fiction, which includes much of what politicians and ‘news’ programs report, you might think that none of this communal interdependence exists, as if the food, clothes, and guns we have such easy access to are somehow ‘natural,’ and that ‘real’ men should stand apart and alone. In reality, they don’t and they can’t.
I’m not saying one person cannot make a difference. If, at the end of the day, you have spread some joy, well being, or understanding, then you have, but the myth of the lone defender of justice is a fiction. And, with all due respect to Batman and talk radio hosts, believing it true is, at the very least, a sign of dangerous arrogance. There are exceptional people, but I think there is one clear truth. If you think you are one, it proves you are not.
None of us is the sole competent judge of what is right, of what is best, or of how things should be— at least not for others. We have the inherent right and duty to make choices for ourselves, but no individual has the omniscient wisdom to pass judgment on the worthiness of another person or on humanity as a whole. This is why we have society. Our collective decisions on such things may be no more accurate or even more ethical than those of any individual, and we each may object and even oppose them (peacefully) as they apply to us, but they do tend to mitigate the impact of the truly insane.
So, one filter I try to keep in my philosophical spectacles is the just this. Heroes exist, but they do not stand alone. Those who believe they do, are most likely villains.