Hi there! I’ve been oddly quiet for a bit, I know. The world has been a very difficult place the past few weeks, and I needed some time to process the different thoughts and counter thoughts that are occupying air waves right now. The past few weeks have been a time of reading, introspection and learning for me, more so than usual, and the best part about being a non-commercial show is that I could take the time to look at what was happening, analyze the reports coming in on Black Lives Matter, on COVID around the world, as lockdowns get lifted and understand things that were said on mainstream media, and much else left unsaid.
Nevertheless, I’ve missed putting my thoughts out there, and it’s good to be back. Specifically on Black Lives Matter, there’s a lot to be said, and I’m going to need some ammo, so that’ll be a different episode.
But today, I wanted to really talk about heroes, sheroes, role models and icons. In times of crises, these are the people who get called on to speak their opinions on matters of policy, on matters of life and death, people who have risen in public view because of their eminence in the fields of arts, science, politics and sports. We expect a lot from them as a collective. We expect them to inspire us, to guide us in the right direction, we expect them to be perfect, and we expect them to be perfect in the narratives of our present and the past.
Perhaps, that’s why, we constantly have to reckon with disappointment when a new sex scandal breaks about someone we idolized, or when we realize how racist, casteist or sexist some of our heroes of yesteryears were.
From Mahatma Gandhi, whose thinly veiled disdain for the lower castes, and racism against Africans is finally coming to light, to allegations of sexual assault against the late Kobe Bryant, and criticisms against former President Barack Obama on race policy, no one is beyond accountability. And yet, depending on who you speak with, you could get into some serious arguments at best, lose some friends at worse, if you brought it up with someone who idolized these men. You’ll hear a lot of defensive excuses, from “the times were different then,” to “how do you know the victim wasn’t lying” to “but he was a President for all, and not just Black people”, and all of a sudden, the standards that apply to almost everyone else don’t apply to these celebrities anymore. Why are we culturally so compelled to make heroes and celebrities out of normal people? Why do we look toward them to answer the questions that are plaguing our conscience, or to articulate what we are unable to? Despite knowing that all celebrities have carefully crafted their identities in a world where their lives are seemingly more accessible through streaming documentaries, through self-written memoirs and blogs, why do we still believe in their authenticity? In a world where social media influencers and celebrity brands have so much power to disseminate information, it is worth asking if it’s time for us to bring about the death of all heroes?
As humans, hero worship has always occupied that space in our imaginations which has seemed unattainable to the average human. In art, in literature, in mythology, heroes have demonstrated characteristics that are often hard to build and follow through on in our daily lives — whether it’s physical strength or loyalty in soldiers, a characteristic important to warring cultures like Greeks and Romans — or honesty, courage and the ability to surrender material wealth and comforts for a belief or for one’s country.
We’ve grown up on stories of heroes of the past — Mark Antony, Joan of Arc, Galileo, Gandhi, Vivekananda, Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill, Franklin D Roosevelt — pick your country, pick an era and there will be heroes. We have been taught to emulate certain attributes these men, and rarely women, had, as life lessons we ought to aspire to, as ways in which to lead our lives.
We’re doing the same with contemporary heroes too — we want to exalt them to a higher place in public discourse, we often want to find a reason why these men and women we adore would behave the way they do, because they’re special and perfect and can do no wrong.
That is how Gandhi remains the Father of the Indian Nation, that is how all feminists of the 80s can’t understand why, oh, why did young women not come out and vote for the feminist that Hillary Clinton is, and why any word against Beyonce seems like an affront to so many of her followers.
But think about that list of people I just named. Winston Churchill, the man of the Darkest Hour in Britain’s pre-world war history, is a mass murderer in the eyes of Indians. Millions of Indian people died from a famine created by Churchill, so food and other supplies could be directed to war-ravaged Britain, while Indian lives, worse than dogs in his eyes, starved and vanquished enmasse.
Then think about Gandhi. The man credited for bringing together all Indians under a common freedom movement was actually a staunch believer in the superiority of races and castes. He wanted untouchables brought into the political movement, but only in as far as it would benefit the upper caste agenda of self-governance. In fact, he repeatedly clashed with B.R. Ambedkar on this issue, often sabotaging the movement of the Dalits and drowning their voices and demands, negotiating with the British to ensure those voices would not be heard. He wanted the supremacy of the Hindu upper caste left intact.
While in South Africa, he campaigned for the rights of Indian upper castes alone, and fervently believed that the native South African people were inferior to brown people, while at the same time believing that Indians were not equal to white people, but that we simply deserved better treatment than the Blacks.
One could argue that the times were different. And perhaps they were. One could also argue that in the context of their times, and in the context of their contributions to the larger world, these are immaterial. Undoubtedly, these men and women of extraordinary courage and character possess some qualities that make them stand out, that have helped them achieve goals that serve the greater good. But to say that we ought to ignore the darker, less-savory parts of their characters is to also ignore the hurt and the pain their actions have caused and continue to cause many of our own. It is to be dismissive of the damage they have caused real people, by labelling human lives as collateral damage. It is to say that we as a collective are ok sacrificing some lives for other lives, instead of acknowledging that everyone must be taken care of for a movement to succeed. So, it’s ok to revere Martin Luther King Jr, and still acknowledge that he hurt many women with his myriad affairs, so it’s ok to acknowledge that Beyonce not leaving her cheating husband, or Hillary Clinton not doing so, whatever their personal reasons might have been, set a bad example and the wrong precedent for the feminist movement, especially when they are self-proclaimed champions of women’s rights and so it’s ok to say George Washington, founding father of the United States was still a slave owner and that was wrong.
But, even beyond that, it is important to ask ourselves why must we see these human beings as perfect? Why must we expect them to set any example? Why must we follow, love and hate individuals, who just like you and me, started out simply doing their jobs, and managed to get really good at it? Human beings are fallible. None of us knows everything. Each of us, in our day jobs, in the decisions we make with friends, families, makes mistakes, each of us has regretted some action or reaction we’ve had to an incident or a situation in the past, and learned and grown from it. Why must we expect celebrities and heroes and icons to be different?
Why must streets be named after them and statues be made in their honor, only to be renamed and taken down in disgrace a hundred years later? Why can’t we stop at leaving human beings as just that — flawed humans, who despite their flaws, despite their wrongdoings, still managed to do some good?
Is it because we believe ourselves to be so mediocre that we can never aspire to make any impact at all, or is it because we need a fantasy that makes us feel hope in a world where everything seems to be falling apart? And if it is the latter, wouldn’t it make so much more sense to spend time and effort understanding the world ourselves instead of seeing it through the eyes of our icons and heroes?
For me, personally, heroes have lost their place a long time ago. I read memoirs and biographies only to know how human these people were or are, to never make the mistakes they made. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had many heroes in the past. Every girl has one sportsperson crush, and I had mine. For every person, there is one politician who seems like the perfect leader and I had mine. And just as I started getting comfortable with the notions of perfection in my heroes, I started reading perspectives of those that these men and women had hurt, or disappointed. Of the truth they’d obfuscated to maintain their position of power, of the compromises they made that made them seem less than. There is not one person in history or in the present who is glorified as a hero, a leader, an icon who has not failed humanity in at least one way that has hurt a large number of people — sexism, homophobia, racism, classism, casteism, ableism, militarization and colonization, nepotism, religious supremacy/xenophobia to name a few. Pick a hero. There is at least one group of people whose sentiments or lives the hero has affected adversely through their actions, beliefs and words at some point.
In a world that is imperfect, that has so much suffering, a world that according to many scriptures is a creation of God, one must wonder if God too, is after all, imperfect. And in that, for me, lies the absolute validation that there are, in fact, no heroes. There are men and women who have lived and died and done some good things in the times they’ve lived, but inadvertently, in the way this imperfect world is structured, they have hurt others too. They were human. Like you and me. Our tribute to these people is not in idolizing them, or creating lores glorifying them, but in recognizing their failures, the hurt and the pain they caused, and working to address them with the time given to us in this world.
There are no heroes. There’s just you and me, and many more like us. We write the stories for tomorrow’s history books. There’s no one coming to save us. It’s still just you and me. And we’re the ones who get to decide how the next 50 years will look like for this world. Time to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and get to work.
Until next time, adios!