Heroic Lag: How Societies Are Slow to Adopt Heroic Changes

It takes time for society to catch up to a hero's new way of thinking.

Posted Aug 04, 2020

Nelson Mandela
Source: paradiseblueart/Flickr

“Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.” —Marshall McLuhan

The term heroic lag refers to the time it takes society to embrace a hero's new way of looking at the world. There are many examples of a hero championing ideas that are so radical that the hero is initially seen as a villain but then years later is viewed as a hero.

During the 19th century, Susan B. Anthony was reviled for promoting women’s suffrage, but now she's a cultural legend. Nelson Mandela fought for racial equality and was imprisoned for 27 years in South Africa before his country embraced him. In the early 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr., was loathed by most of America for leading the civil rights movement, yet now we have a holiday honoring his accomplishments.

The Black Lives Matter movement, established in 2013 in response to police shootings of unarmed Black citizens, was unpopular among mainstream Americans for years. In May of 2020, the brutal murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis officer, captured on video, seemed to represent the tipping point in public opinion. By June of 2020, support for the Black Lives Matter movement had reached 76 percent of Americans. This number was a significant departure from 2013 when a majority of voters disagreed with Black Lives Matter.

We're also witnessing a rise in public approval of Colin Kaepernick, who for years was widely condemned for kneeling during the playing of the American national anthem. Heroic lag seems to have run its course, as the NFL is now embracing Kaepernick. In a video released in June of 2020, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said: "We, the National Football League, admit we were wrong for not listening to NFL players earlier and encourage all to speak out and peacefully protest. We, the National Football League, believe black lives matter. I personally protest with you and want to be part of the much needed change in this country.”

Heroes are ahead of their time, and history has shown that almost all people ahead of their time are vilified, and sometimes even assassinated. The dark period of heroic lag cost the lives of Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr. It can take years, even generations, for the general public to catch up to the level of moral development of a heroic prophet.

In a perfect world, there would be no heroic lag. A new, good way of doing things would be proposed and people would accept it. But a sad truism in psychology is that people resist change, especially any change that threatens authority, tradition, one’s ego, or one’s tribe. People fear change and then hate the agent of change.

Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We can be reassured that despite heroic lag, the moral truth of a heroic principle eventually becomes acknowledged and revered. Fear is overcome, and rather than hated the change-agent becomes a beloved hero.

To be sure, there is a great cost to heroic lag. Good people die and society suffers great losses before a heroic ideal gains popular acceptance. Heroic lag is fed by psychological and structural barriers to progress. Whenever someone dares to defy social norms, we should all pause and reflect on whether those in power are benefiting from putting an end to the defiance. In this way, we can keep heroic lag to a minimum.


Denver Post (2020). Colin Kaepernick has more support now, still a long way to go. Retrieved from https://www.denverpost.com/2020/06/06/colin-kaepernick-more-support/

Goethals, G. R., & Allison, S. T. (2019). The romance of heroism and heroic leadership. West Yorkshire: Emerald.

New York Times (2020). How public opinion has moved on Black Lives Matter. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/06/10/upshot/black-lives-matter-attitudes.html