Ethics in World-Building: Individualism

Is it time to reject the narratives that push individualist heroes and focus on stories of community organizing?

I’ve written about the perils of the “Chosen One” trope before, particularly in how it can prop up unjust systems. There is an underlying philosophy to these stories. They are stories revolving around a sole individual, their personal goals and happiness. Often in science-fiction and fantasy stories, these individuals are put on a pedestal, where similar to the chosen one, they are uniquely qualified and brilliant enough to be the one to save the day.

An individualist narrative isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The freedom to command one’s self and make one’s own pursuits in life is vital and important, and those stories are just as valid and necessary. So I want to make that distinction here; while the problem I am referring to are often examples of individualist narratives, it’s not this type of story as a whole. For the sake of discussion, we might refer to this as toxic individualism.

What is toxic individualism? When the goals and desires of the individual become more important than that of others, when they spread into selfishness, or lead into frames-of-mind that dis-empower and harm others. A toxic individualist narrative is when the moral crusade of the hero comes at the cost of the autonomy of the community in which they live, even if that cost is under the guise of protecting them or preserving the status quo.

Let’s talk about Batman.

Batman has frequently been referred to as a capitalist superhero. A man who uses his wealth and prestige in order to serve his community and help the city he lives in. He takes his creativity and his invention into the nights in order to further protect those around him by punishing evil-doers and protecting the innocent.

Seems like a stand-up guy, right? Of course, when we look into what it is that Batman does, it starts to look a little strange. A man with that much wealth could buy up the debt of everyone in Gotham alone and have it barely dent his pocket-books. If comic book and film canon is to be believed, a more ethical spending of Bruce Wayne’s finances would look a lot more like the choices made in the twine game You Are Jeff Bezos, a game where you can give away inordinate amounts of Amazon CEO’s grotesque wealth and have millions left over.

In essence, becoming Batman does little to help Bruce Wayne’s community or solve the systemic and structural problems that plague Gotham. It’s been frequently pointed out by his villains and in-canon critics that the presence of Batman seems to only exacerbate the problems in the city. Batman isn’t there to help Gotham, he is there to help Bruce Wayne achieve personal happiness and gratification, a selfish coping mechanism for his trauma.

It’s fair to say that Bruce Wayne is a prime example of the Randian hero. Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy could be seen as another term for toxic individualism, which touts the ethics of self-interest. In her own words, the Randian hero’s self-interest is his moral action, the pursuit of personal happiness even at the cost of others. Like Bruce Wayne, the Randian hero can be generous, but these displays of compassion are another self-assertion of their moral authority and righteousness. The generosity of the Randian hero should never compromise with their personal happiness or goals.

It is selfishness as virtue. Batman can never fully give up his wealth to save the city he loves because that in itself would compromise with his own virtues, his own pursuit of happiness. Even the despair and harm he throws himself and others in is still part of this goal, his own strict code. So he acts with only so much compassion, only so much empathy.

This is the crux of much of our narratives surrounding heroes. Tony Stark could do so much for the world by abandoning his wealth and machines and giving back all of it, but instead he keeps the best for himself. Even after he chooses to no longer build terrifying weapons to sell across the globe, he still keeps the best for himself, to use in his personal pursuit of happiness — his goal of redeeming himself. His pursuits are a form of vanity, his morality little more than a veneer to help himself sleep at night.

The heroes in our stories put their very lives on the line to save and protect others, but never at the cost of their own power and privilege. They would never seek to dismantle the systems that enabled this inequality in the first place. Many of them seek to preserve the status quo, rather than undo it.

But even in the mainstream…that’s beginning to change. I’ve been noticing a gradual shift in the narrative. In Thor: Ragnarok, the wealth of Asgard is called into question, and for the first time in a mainstream superhero film, we saw the privilege of the heroes’ society examined for its origins in oppression. Ragnarok sees the heroic choice in allowing Asgard to be destroyed, our hero sacrificing a symbol of his own privilege and power in order to preserve the lives of his community. It’s not a perfect shift, but a notable one.

I was surprised while catching up on Gotham this week, a monumentally silly show that has fallen prey to the worst of Batman mythologizing. The show has repeatedly threatened the chosen one archetype regarding Bruce Wayne’s destiny in becoming Batman. There are vague foreshadowing as to our little Randroid’s eventual greatness, only for the show to undercut all of this with the greatest line in the entire series.

Jim Gordon, our other individualist protagonist of the series, a self-made man with a strict moral fiber, comes to grips with his own inadequacies while attempting to save several hostages from the Mad Hatter. He whispers into a microphone in a hoarse voice, “I cannot save you. Save each other.”

The citizens of Gotham manage to escape the clutches of evil, not through the efforts of a heroic cop or billionaire, but through relying on one another. They grip each other’s arms tightly and keep each other from plummeting towards their doom.

I’ve said it before, in the real world we cannot afford to cling to the idea of a sole hero saving or guiding us. Not a single person, no matter how virtuous or talented or capable can fix this broken mess of a planet we live on.

In the stories we tell, it’s perfectly fine to tell stories of people who are alienated or isolated, simply trying to make their way in life and find their own personal happiness. These stories can give us hope in dark times, when we are cut off from our communities. But we should avoid grand narratives when the fate of the entire world is placed onto the shoulders of a singular individual. They are damaging, and speak to an unhealthy, selfish mindset.

I think we will be better served by stories of people like us, who use our unique gifts and creativity to help each other, to prop and lift each other up, rather than serving the destiny and happiness of a singular person.

I cannot save you. Save each other.

Save each other.

Dorian Dawes is the author of Harbinger Island and Mercs. Their non-fiction work has been published by Bitch Media and the Huffington Post. You can support their work at patreon.com/doriandawes