Who is a hero? Here goes (nothing).

There’s an old interview with Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols—I don’t know where to find it, but I’m willing to believe it was Johnny Rotten—where he talks about his heroes, or rather, his lack of heroes. According to Rotten, all heroes are useless and, long story short, he doesn’t have any. It’s curious that this interview resonated in a markedly different way when Fabrizio Ruggiero, a Neapolitan contemporary artist, gave a talk here at NYU Florence three weeks ago. He discussed painting frescoes of activist icons for the United Nations in New York. A bystander said something that connected quite vividly to that old Johnny Rotten interview: “It’s easy to come up with a list of villains throughout history, but much harder to come up with a list of heroes.”

Some members of older generations like to tell my generation who our heroes are supposed to be. Some of my peers like to tell the rest of our generation who our heroes aren’t supposed to be. The former like to tell us to look up to a Beyonce, a George Washington, a Nelson Mandela or a Mahatma Gandhi. The latter like to play punk or alternative and make a specific point of rejecting those same established figures the former tell us to admire. It’s frustrating, to say the least, because the former give us flawed heroes we are told are perfect, and the latter give us no heroes at all. I’m sure the punk anti-hero contingent would be quick to point out that Beyonce has, in many respects, been pitched, marketed and sold by the corporate music industry as the perfect image of black feminine empowerment and that Washington owned slaves. But don’t most major heroes have their flaws? Some of them are serious offences too. As the skeptics like to tell us, Gandhi used to sleep naked next to children. Should we really be looking up to someone like that? Barack Obama, now ex-president of the United States, is considered a modern icon, and yet, he has ordered drone strikes that have killed an estimated 13,000 people in the Middle East.

Then again, do we really want to end up without any heroes? Who are we expected to look up to? Who should we strive to be like? Perhaps we hold our heroes up to impossible standards. Maybe instead of asking them to be perfect, we should simply admire their praiseworthy qualities. So while Obama or Gandhi might not be paragons of virtue, at least we can aspire to do the good things they’ve done, and simply ignore the bad.

Instead of viewing our heroes as mortals, as people who make mistakes or worse, it might be better to imagine them as beacons of perfect virtue, almost god-like. This approach to heroes and icons would be the exact opposite of the skeptics’ view, as we would simply be pretending not to see their flaws. That way, when we celebrate them, we would not, technically, be accepting the bad, because we would be celebrating our projection of perfection onto them. They would almost take on a divine quality, but then, at least we would have perfect heroes.

Alternatively, we could see it as a balance, so if someone’s virtues outweigh their less agreeable qualities, then we can still view them as heroes and continue celebrating them. At the end of the day, even then we would still be extolling their righteousness and ignoring their shortcomings. Maybe that’s how we should define our heroes.

Or not.

Sure we could have perfect heroes, but are we really going to put people like Obama and Gandhi—even though they have plenty of admirable qualities—on the same pedestal as someone like Malala Yousafzai? Malala was a Pakistani activist who campaigned for access to education for girls against the Taliban. The Taliban then attempted to assassinate her. Malala demonstrated the sort of courage that most grown men could never even fathom, and on top of that, she doesn’t seem to have done anything nearly as reproachable as Obama’s drone strikes or Gandhi’s sleeping naked next to children. As much as overlooking people’s flaws for their principles gives us plenty of heroes, a lot of those flaws are not small and they will sometimes outweigh the virtues. John F. Kennedy is always held up as one of the great icons and heroes of the 20th century, but there are enough dark stories about his mob ties and womanizing, not to mention the countless attempted assassinations of foreign leaders, to suggest that he doesn’t even deserve to be considered a hero or icon in the same way that someone like, say, Nelson Mandela is.

Perhaps that’s how we should see our heroes.

We should demand perfection—we should reject the skeptics. Maybe we aren’t supposed to have that many heroes in the first place, maybe there should only be a handful of heroes throughout human history. Maybe that’s what makes them so significant. So maybe we should dismiss people like Obama or Washington, and save our adulation for those who truly deserve to stand in the pantheon of heroes. Maybe that means we only get a few heroes, but they matter that much more. We would have icons to look up to without anything to sully our faith in them and their heroism.

But is that even possible ?

Because, here’s the thing. I’ve been holding Malala up as the untouchable icon, the perfect hero, but maybe it’s just a question of time and context. Malala has lived a third of what Obama lived: Who is to say she will not have to make tough decisions in the future? Decisions that will hurt others? Maybe in 30 years, when Malala has lived as long as Obama, we will be saying the same things about her that we do about him. Maybe we’ll just end up without any heroes, and then what examples will we have to emulate?

Perhaps, beyond all that, it’s really a question of broadening the scope of what it means to even be a hero in the first place. Instead, after all this back and forth, it makes the most sense to me to just see our heroes as human beings. Sure, Malala might have to make a tough decision, but so will we, so will most people. Her heroism stems, and the heroism of our icons in general will stem, in part, I believe, from their willingness to take responsibility for the decisions they make—even the tough ones. Obama knows what those drone strikes did, but he hasn’t necessarily washed his hands of the consequences. Point is, anybody can take responsibility for their actions, even if our natural human instinct is to ignore it, to escape the consequences of our actions. The capacity for recognizing one’s own shortcomings and mistakes is not restricted to a select few. Anybody can be a hero. From your grandfather to your local baker, just as long as you look up to them, as long as they have something you admire and they don’t pretend they are anything more than a human being, they’re a hero.

Cool. So to me that’s what a hero can be: Everybody and anybody.


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