Thursday, October 31, 2013

How to Be a Superhero

Image Credit Eneas De Troya
In a recent episode of This American Life, we get the story of a woman named Zora who wants to be a superhero. For a long time, she set and accomplished goals on a long list, including learning martial arts, how to pilot a helicopter, wilderness survival skills, bodybuilding, and a few dozen other skills that comic book superheros always seem to possess. I recently had a conversation with someone who thought that we really should encourage others to be like superheroes, but in ways that make sense for the world we inhabit.

Lots of people want to be superheroes, I suppose. There's a lot of glamor in it, and fame of course, and it seems like a very exciting life. Most importantly, one would imagine, is that it offers a wonderful chance to help others.

But does it? Surely, the superheroes in comic books help a lot of people. But that's because there are often super villains who need to be stopped by superheroes, or else millions might die. Other than that, though, they do a lot of everyday crime fighting.

Is crime fighting really what we need more of? It seems that if that's what you thought, it would make sense to go into police work, or perhaps lobby for more money for law enforcement. Encouraging vigilantism hardly seems ideal. And because our world lacks the kinds of super villains that are best handled by superheroes, it's hard to see figures like Batman or Wonder Woman as practical role models.

The kinds of evils we face are much more subtle than those in comic books. A lot of evil is just apathy and ignorance. So the first place to start is just to educate yourself about the world, so that you are not, as best as possible, part of the problem. You can then play an important part in educating others, and fighting against the tide of ignorance. You might come to believe, as I have, some of the greatest wrongs committed in this world are towards non-human animals, and you can become part of a movement to educate the world about veganism.

You might also realize that there are billions of humans who live in much worse conditions than those in the most privileged nations. If you're a member of a privileged nation, you can research and contribute to ways that help relieve suffering in those parts of the world. These are both the places in which we can offer the most help and the places in most dire need, so it is doubly important to focus our efforts there. You probably can't solve all the world's problems, but you can do a lot to make the lives of some people much better. And this means all the world to them. You can even (statistically speaking) save lives, by giving significant, but not overly burdensome, amounts of money to charities like those at GiveWell.

It might not seem as grand as piloting a helicopter or fighting of muggers with your bare hands. But practical problems demand practical solutions, and this is where the real work needs to be done.

I'm sure there are those who would think I'm missing the point. Wanting to be a superhero is about wanting to do more than just statistically save lives or shift moral paradigms, it's about wanting to make yourself into a dynamic individual with incredible abilities who can do her part to save the world.

But what I'm trying to show here is that's already who many of us are. We already have the ability to get many important things accomplished, and that includes saving lives. We might have to give up on the idea that being a superhero means going on fantastic adventures and acquiring the wondrous skills. After all, if being a superhero means anything, it means you might have to give something up to do the right thing. Perhaps today's superheros are best advised to leave the super armor at home and put their efforts into the daily grind of trying to make life better for the worst off.

After all, if we imagine Superman or Spiderman staying at home, or just using their power to show off, I think we see something really wrong there. If they have the power to do a lot of good, then they should use it. And so should we.


  1. My only comment is that, if you read the comics, The Superhero life is generally not glamorous in actuality. Superheros are hardly ever without their own problems. They face moral dilemmas and personal tragedy, usually on a large scale. It's what makes those stories so engaging and keeps them around for so long.

  2. I thought someone might call me out on not doing justice to my characterization superheros. Fair point. Though a lot of what I'm trying to say is about the idea of a superhero in the public imagination, rather than in specific comic books.

    Batman is an interesting case, because the case of a billionaire developing incredible technologies and training himself to be exceptionally physically fit is not entirely implausible. But my question is, couldn't he do a lot more with the resources if he wanted to help people? Even if his goal is to help the people of Gotham avoid crime, it would seem his money could be better spent.

    All of which might be obvious, I suppose. But I think it might be a useful light in which to consider our own choices.