You all know Plato's famous Euthyphro dilemma, but it's worth re-printing here:
"Is the pious loved by the Gods because it is pious, or is it pious because it is loved by the Gods?"
Plato's always a good place to start when discussing the touchy subject of personal heroes, and the Euthyphro is how I like to frame the discussion. I know people, friends and family, who don't have any heroes because these are people, hey, we're talking about, and people are flawed, people let you down, people have grey areas and are, in short, not worthy of being put on the Hero pedestal.
That's a point of view I can understand, but it's not one I subscribe to. For me, a person doesn't have to be perfect or even exceptionally virtuous to be a hero of mine. My heroes have one or more traits I find exceptional and admirable, or they've done exceptional and admirable things. In a more Platonic formulation, I might say "These ideals are heroic, and Bob is my hero because he does them," as opposed to "Bob is my hero, so the things he does are heroic."
Anyway, this is a long way of getting to saying that Neil Gaiman is a personal hero of mine. It's not because he writes terrific stories, stories which inspire me and I find myself re-reading over and over. What makes him a hero, to me, is this: He has the extremely rare ability to speak about ideas the sort of ideas which tend to provoke strong, emotional responses in a way that is calm, thoughtful, and definitive in a way that defuses rather than escalates. Here's Neil Gaiman discussing "political correctness" a couple of years ago:
I was reading a book (about interjections, oddly enough) yesterday which included the phrase “In these days of political correctness…” talking about no longer making jokes that denigrated people for their culture or for the colour of their skin. And I thought, “That’s not actually anything to do with ‘political correctness’. That’s just treating other people with respect.”
Which made me oddly happy. I started imagining a world in which we replaced the phrase “politically correct” wherever we could with “treating other people with respect”, and it made me smile.
You should try it. It’s peculiarly enlightening.
I know what you’re thinking now. You’re thinking “Oh my god, that’s treating other people with respect gone mad!”
In a sense, it's the opposite of trolling. I admire that and recognize that it's a lot more difficult than it looks. I try to make my point and still be above the fray the way Mr. Gaiman can be, but...well, I'm a bit of a work in progress in that respect.
So, count me in the pro-hero column. I admire John Steinbeck and Warren Ellis and Sarah Vowell and Neil deGrasse Tyson and Greg Graffin and many others. I admire them for what they do and say. They've all given me something to aspire to be. I think that's a fine thing so long as I don't stick them up on a pedestal and say that everything they do is heroic just because they're the ones doing it.