Thursday, August 02, 2012


I was struck, as I usually am, by the surprise the media evince when discussing the actions of people at the Century Cinema in Aurora, Co during the recent shooting there. The reporters always seem to find it hard to understand when they tell a story of a man throwing himself on top of his girlfriend or wife (or even a stranger) to shield her from the bullets and dying as a result. On occasion the genders are reversed, or the story is of a mother defending a child, but most commonly we read of men who step or dive between death and others.

The reason I find the reporting somewhat disingenuous in this particular case is of course, because the people who shielded these innocents were doing so at a movie about a comic book hero.

They were just doing what they had been taught; what they had been shown repeatedly in works of fictional literature,  heroes do. They were just being heroes.

By no means do I intend to trivialize these actions. What I do want to say, however, is that these actions, these heroic actions, are NOT unusual to people. They are common and normal. When sudden danger presents itself, REAL people act as heroes, even to the "last full measure of devotion".

"The marvel is not that the bear dances well, but that the bear dances at all." — Russian proverb

We are, at our core, an altruistic social species. We actually do NOT instinctively seek the course of action which guarantees our individual survival. Rather, we instinctively act to preserve and protect our families, our friends, our companions, our crowd, our tribe, our nation.

The people who do this are not acting unusually, nor above and beyond. They are acting normally and that is all the more noble because they are acting to preserve that very character in our species and culture.

The depiction of heroes like Batman helps preserve and propagate this tendency, this meme within our societies. Every culture has them as well; the heroes. But, frankly, I think comic books and graphic novels have some of the best. In sequential  art we have returned to a method of storytelling that engages and exercises multiple aspects of our cognitive abilities. Sequential art (comics) tells stories with pictures, words, framing, temporality, and imagination...comics are, when looked at carefully, one of the finest literary art forms ever devised.

When events such as the Aurora shootings occur, there are rules which, one can trust, were both instinctual and learned; reinforced as it were by the literature these people had consumed. First, get women and children to safety. This is not at all misogynistic. If we, as a society, do not make such a rule primary, the species may die out...this reaction is evolutionarily encoded in our genes. Besides, of what other value are we males in such a situation than serving as self selecting shields. Again, genetically, we are predisposed to do this.

Of course, there are always plenty of women who act as heroes in this manner as well. Sacrificing themselves for their children or for any children. Or for their mates and other people in the vicinity. Such heroism is also both instinctual and learned from a society's hero literature. Protect, defend, preserve...first for the next generation, then for the ones who can create the next generation.

This is what REAL people do in terrifying, dangerous, life threatening, chaotic, insane situations such as a movie theater filled with complacent, relaxed, comfortable, overweight spectators of silly fictional stories about bizarre characters dressed in caped armor to fight crime.

They step up and act heroically because, at our heart, we are a heroic people.

It is very important for our media to recognize heroic action, yes. But they should not seem so is what we do.

And, we SHOULD take our lessons in heroism from these hyperbolic characters.  From classic myth through James Bond to Batman, literary fictions are the lies we tell ourselves to reveal the truth of our condition.