Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Everyday Heroes (or: photos of 2011, and the complexity of this world)

this week, the news ageny Reuters released a blog post with the "Best photos of the year 2011". the post contains 100 photos and starts with a warning: some images contain graphic content or nudity. you can view the images with a slideshow, which makes them move so fast that you don't have a chance to read the notes, which sometimes leaves you clueless about who is shown in the photo: the good guys, or the bad guys? sometimes the ones with uniform are the ones who rescue. sometimes they are the ones people hope to get rescued from.

looking at the images made me think of 2 books i read in the last weeks. one is "Heroes and Philosophy". the Heroes in the title refers to the TV-series, which is about several people who discover that they have superhuman abilities. they also discover that an evil company is scheming behind the scenes, and that the destruction of New York City is looming. to make things a bit more complicated, not all of them are out to save the world. the book now takes a philosophical look at the series, and deals with general themes like: the social contract, the ethics of sving the world, time and the meaning of life (hello Nietzsche), hero archetypes, the science of time travel, the philosophical implication of memory loss etc.). Here's a bit of it:

"Superhero stories usually make no secret of who the good guys and the bad guys are. Superman good, Lex Luthor bad. Batman good, Joker bad. Heroes began this way, too: Peter good, Sylar bad. Heroes good, Company bad. But as we discovered in Volume 3 ("Villains") things are not always so clear; heroes can become villains an villains can become heroes. Even the series' signature icon - the eclipse - signals that the Heroes moral universe is more complex and, in fact, darker."
- Peter S. Fosl, chapter 16: "Are the Heroes Really Good?

the passage, it's not all that striking when read at first. after all, we're talking a fictional series here. and we all know that the real world is a complex place, in many aspects. but just some days later, i received a book that was about current political happenings. it's a book that i didn't know of until it arrived in my postbox: "Walking the Tiger's Path" - a soldier's spiritual journey in Iraq. It's the story of Paul M. Kendel, who found himself in a place where he hoped he could make a difference, and had to realize that his approaches singled him out, and let his fellow soldiers wonder about his intentions, and about the definitions of good and bad : "My interest in the people and lack of hatred and anger towards them has often been seen as suspicious. In the army you are trained to hate your enemy, and compassion and kindness are for the weak".

the irony of course is that as an archetype, heroes are lead by compassion, but also are powerful.

with all this in mind, i browsed the TEDtalk archive, and arrived at a talk that that is about: heroes. as in: ordinary people faced with situations that bring out the best in some, and the worst in others:
"Why ordinary people do evil ... or do good" by psychologist Philip Zimbardo.

here's a passage from it with an ending line that sounds so easy, and is so difficult.

"So situations have the power to do, through -- but the point is, this is the same situation that can inflame the hostile imagination in some of us, that makes us perpetrators of evil, can inspire the heroic imagination in others. It's the same situation. And you're on one side or the other. Most people are guilty of the evil of inaction, because your mother said, "Don't get involved. Mind your own business." And you have to say, "Mama, humanity is my business."

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