In his USA Today column, Glenn "Instapundit" Reynolds writes about Zaevion Dobson, a high school student in Knoxville, Tennessee who died while shielding three girls from gangbangers' bullets.
The shooting — and Dobson's heroism — got national attention and even garnered a tweet from President Obama. There's a GoFundMe page to establish a scholarship fund in his name. And Fulton High School principal Rob Speas commented: "You really don't make a decision in those moments. You just react. And the way Zaevion reacted was to take care of other people. A kid made a split-second decision to take care of others."…
We'd like to live in a world where such heroic tendencies are common, but if they were common, then they wouldn't be heroic, would they? But surely, we'd like to live in a world where selfless heroism is more common.
Reynolds argues that heroes are made, not born. He suggests that heroic actions come from attitudes and institutions that promote a different sort of world than the one in which we live.
Elementary school students are told they can't play tag because it involves touching. College students cry for safe spaces and demand trigger warnings. At Oberlin, even ethnic cafeteria food is too much to bear. These days, it seems, we are less likely to exalt heroism than victimhood. With that sort of culture, people like Zaevion seem even more miraculous…
Yet the world, as recent events demonstrate, still calls for heroism on a regular basis. And it seems to me a society that exalts heroism, rather than victimhood, is a society that is likely to have a more desirable ratio of heroes to victims than one that works the other way. Perhaps we should consider making some changes.
And to Zaevion Dobson, rest in peace. Your actions represented the best in human action. Whatever the state of the culture in general, you, and your family, and your friends, have every reason to be proud.
I agree with Reynolds that culture matters in this sort of discussion. A society that valorizes victimization will yield more victims and one that champions heroic qualities (we can argue about what those are, but surely they include courage, honesty, commitment, and responsibility) will get more heroes.
Yet I think it's a mistake to always conflate heroism with phsyical strength and sacrifice. Reynolds mentions in pasing that "football is falling out of favor" in part because it involves "too much physicality." Yeah, no.
To the extent that football is fading at lower levels of involvement, it's because it involves stupid physicality. It has a high injury rate and evidence is piling up that it causes serious long-term injuries to those who play it for long periods of time. At the same time, all sorts of physical activity is flourishing, often in extreme forms that are less damaging to our bodies and minds. It's just that it takes different shapes than what some of us grew up with. As the picture above makes clear, Dobson was a football player but it's far from clear to me what role that played in his heroic, self-sacrificing action.
And the line defining heroism is not always easily drawn. Two of the country's great Vietnam doves, Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, had seen real action in World War II and fought valiantly. Yet they were dispatched by political rivals as weak girly-men in debates over foreign policy and military intervention, sometimes by politicians who themselves had sat out the war or had been desk jockeys. I think they acted courageously in speaking out against a war that was unjustified. It wasn't easy to do that.
In his piece, Reynolds has kind words about the Boy Scouts as the sort of institution that helps create the right conditions for heroic thinking. As an Eagle Scout, I'm very familiar with how the group taught its charges 35 years ago. There was a physical dimension to it, for sure, but mostly the training was about values, teamwork, community, and leadership. For all the quasi-military trappings of the Scouts, the organization didn't harp much on conformity and hierarchy that is essentail to actual martial organziations. It really was more about learning new skills and figuring out how to get a long with a bunch of people who might have very little in common. It was a good experience but also one with serious limits that prevented me from letting my own sons join the organization.
Yes, heroes are made, not born. In cases such as Zaevion Dobson's, the heroism of his actions are clear, inspiring, and deeply tragic. But what makes a society heroic in most instances is not always that easy to define and encourage.