The thing is this. In the main there is actually nothing wrong with heroes. They are admirable role models who have excelled in something many of us wish we had the opportunity to do too. There will never be another Michael Jordan, Michael Jackson, Albert Einstein or [insert appropriate name]. Not necessarily because they were outliers or extremely talented people who showed up at the right time, but mainly because you cannot replicate other people. Mimic yes, but I am not so sure about replication.
The problem with heroes is that we place them on pedestals that they have never asked for.
Nelson Mandela lies in a hospital very close to the end of his life. For his supporters he is the ultimate hero. One who endured some of the most isolated times in a prison for the crimes he committed when a member of the ANC. An icon. But for others he will remain a criminal or terrorist if you will. From the Church St bombing to suggestions he condoned violence against the system as well as other black South Africans.
Just typing the fact that he committed or oversaw criminal activity is an issue for me. I don’t want it to blemish his record, but the fact is it is still there. Whilst many want to focus on just the positive points a biography is not well rounded if we cannot admit to the fact there was a darker side (if you pardon the pun) to his legacy. In many ways after his role in the Truth and Reconciliation Committee there are still those who would say that the elder statesman sold out economic power in favour of a weakened political power base.
This does not mean there is no room for putting people on pedestals. We have done so for time immemorial. That is part of a human nature. To elevate others regardless of them wanting it or not, to highlight all their good points and willfully ignore the blatantly negative ones and confer on them the secular equivalent of sainthood. Or where applicable, in the case of the religious, sainthood.
The problem with heroes is that we want them to be without flaws.
It is amazing how quickly people want to jump to the aid of those who are considered their heroes.
Think of Michael Jackson and child abuse allegations. Likewise for those who defended Joe Paterno the famous football coach. Many a hero when placed under the spotlight have flaws. Whether it is the alleged sexual proclivities of the aforementioned or fraudulent and challenging behaviour by leading industrialists and entrepreneurs.
Recently the journalist Aditya Chakrabortty took one of my personal heroes Sir Richard Branson to task about the business model behind Virgin Trains. My initial reaction was it was easy to critique someone who spent their time building wealth and not doing it yourself. Reading the comments section on his article I realised I was not alone, but then it made me think. Maybe the writer has a point. Why did I default to defense? Was it because he is one of my heroes that it touched a nerve? Would it have bothered me if it was Donald Trump someone was writing about? Likewise, I realise I bristled when someone was critical of Karen Brady, another of my business heroes? Hmm.
The problem with heroes is we forget like us they are just simply human.
Ignoring those whose who want to be famous for the sake of being famous sometimes when we scratch beneath the surface and we are challenged on our heroes it can be uncomfortable. Last week Americans celebrated independence day. The irony of that day being an independence day when blacks were still being held as slaves and Native Americans were being slaughtered in the name of progress has not escaped me. In addition, the quote by Thomas Jefferson that “all man are created equal” while himself being a slave owner strikes me as somewhat incredible. Those who would laud Jefferson as a hero would dismiss that fact in light of “the bigger picture” of independence. Or so I am told.
As humans whilst we aim for ideals often we are victims of our own circumstances, environments and temperaments. Same it is for “heroes” as it is for ordinary folk. Revolutionaries like Mohattma Ghandi and Mother Theresa, who dedicated their lives for peace and reconciliation, were also known for their opportunistic, misogynistic views and terrible tempers respectively. Puritan preachers who would rail at the pulpit around sexual impropriety and the “curse of homosexuality” have in so many instances been caught out actually being proponents of the things they speak out about. Politicians, sports stars and even the most recently tainted TV Presenter Jimmy Saville have all had their halos removed. In the latter case he managed to escape it whilst alive.
For me this does not mean we should not be able to celebrate heroes. Of course they can be the one who inspire us, who push us to do things, to reach higher heights. They give us a sense of possibility. They demonstrate that the human spirit along with the right support network and a drive that can sometimes seem superhuman will lift others.
Margaret Thatcher will forever polarise people but for all intents and purposes people will forgive her distaste for Nelson Mandela or treatment of the unions. She will be remembered mostly as the first female Prime Minister of the UK. For all his sexual peccadilloes Martin Luther King will still be remembered as a freedom fighter, and his I Have A Dream Speech. Che Guevara will always be remembered for his revolutionary stance in spite of the fact he is quoted as seeing African blacks as inferior to white Europeans. Bill Clinton will be forever forgiven for receiving fellatio by a young intern whilst President as people focus primarily on his role as a global ambassador. Colin Powell will probably be remembered as the calm soft spoken former General who distanced himself from rampant Republican ideology when many will never forgive him for having a hand in the death of Patrice Lumumba.
It’s not that heroes cannot or should not be made, it’s just that people should be prepared that when we do that, not to forget these heroes are human. That they are possibly hiding a host of flaws which would never emerge had we not put them on the pedestals they most probably did not want, or deserve to be on.