February 24, 2016

When Our Heroes are Also Villains

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

"We can be heroes, just for one day." This is the famous line from one of David Bowie's most popular songs, "Heroes." Bowie was indeed a hero to many people, and his passing at the beginning of the year was met with an outpouring of sadness from fans around the world. Bowie was known as a musical genius, a gender-bending norm breaker, and a crusader for racial justice in the music industry. But he was also known to have had sex with underage groupies and for some critics this dark side of his legacy is something we should not ignore.

Any time someone in the public eye receives the type of adulation and idolization that David Bowie received they are sure to come under scrutiny for their questionable behaviors. Sometimes, there is even what sociologists call a "reconstruction of biography" where past events that were previously forgotten because they were inconsistent with the individual's identity are now unearthed and revealed. And this is not only the case for living and newly deceased people. A similar process happens for long-dead historical figures.

Recently, there have been protests at universities around the world to challenge the long-standing honoring of individuals who were maybe not so honorable. Students and faculty on these campuses are making the case that their schools should not be celebrating so-called "heroes" when these individuals also acted in villainous ways. Consider the following examples:

  • At Yale University, students and faculty have been pressuring the administration to rename Calhoun College, a residential college of the Ivy League school that is named after John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was not only an 1804 graduate of Yale and a Vice President of the United States; in addition, he was also a devoted supporter of slavery who defended the institution as a "positive good." Yale decided recently to take down one of Calhoun's portraits but it is still considering whether to rename the college.
  • At Princeton University, the administration is trying to figure out how to deal with the legacy of Woodrow Wilson. Wilson, the 28th President of the United States, has long been an important presence at Princeton, particularly with the world-renowned Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs. But Wilson was also a racist bigot who brought Jim Crow laws to Washington, D.C. during his presidency. Student protesters are asking the administration to acknowledge the racist legacy of Wilson and stop treating him like a hero.
  • In South Africa, at the University of Cape Town, the college recently removed a statue of Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes was long honored by the University for the land he donated which helped establish the campus. But Rhodes, a British colonialist, was also a well-known racist and an ugly reminder of the white oppression of South Africa's past. The student-led @RhodesMustFall campaign has now spread to Oxford University in England where students are also demanding that a statue celebrating the memory of Rhodes be taken down.

It is likely that these sorts of conversations and protests will continue. In part, they are fueled by the ease and accessibility of social media to raise awareness and mobilize supporters. But it is also true that many of the people we honor and celebrate (both living and dead) are not the unblemished heroes we like to think of them as. They might have been, or still are, heroes to some people; however, they might have also been responsible for reprehensible acts and troubling behavior.

The way we turn some individuals into heroes is a theme that sociologists have long had an interest in. The classical social theorist Max Weber spoke about charisma as one of the three major forms of leadership and authority. For Weber, charisma is based on the individual's personality and the special qualities that set them apart from others. When someone exudes charisma they are likely to be followed by others without much question or hesitation. The personal devotion we feel toward these individuals often results in a cult of personality whereby the person is honored with words (praise, eulogies, songs) and actions (erecting statues, naming buildings, establishing holidays).

When David Bowie passed away, his cult of personality was on full display. Social media offered a barrage of tributes to celebrate his legacy and individuals all over the world changed their online profile pictures to an image of Bowie as a way to honor his memory. It was during these posthumous commemorations of Bowie that some of the unsavory details of his life began to appear. While most people were nostalgic for his charismatic, larger-than-life identity, others quickly pointed out that not all of his actions were wonderful and virtuous.

When these accusations about Bowie surfaced, many people came to his defense, as would be expected of someone with so much charisma. Even one of the women who David Bowie had sex with when she was a 15-year-old groupie defended him. Recounting her time with Bowie, Lori Mattix used what sociologists call a technique of neutralization to suggest that her underage sexual encounter was not harmful. Mattix "denied any injury" was done to her, said she was better off for it, and felt that she was "protected rather than exploited" in the arms of a man "looking like God."

In much the same way that fans came to the defense of David Bowie, people also flocked to the defense of John Calhoun, Woodrow Wilson, and Cecil Rhodes when their historical legacy was questioned. For example, Woodrow Wilson is often celebrated as one of the top ten Presidents of all time and his supporters point out that his good deeds far outweigh his racist inclinations. Why then, they argue, should we rewrite history and negate all the good that he did just because he was not perfect?

It's true that no one is perfect (even Mother Theresa has been cast as a self-serving villain). And yet, we continue to turn people into heroes only to employ all sorts of excuses and justifications to account for their questionable and dishonorable behaviors. Why do we do this? If we know that no one is perfect then why do we insist on putting people on pedestals and worship them as if they were flawless?

There is no easy answer to this question but one explanation might actually be found in Bowie's song "Heroes" when he writes, "Though nothing, nothing will keep us together." Maybe there is something that keeps us together and maybe that something is heroes.

By joining together to celebrate the life of artists, politicians, athletes, and activists, we are asserting our collective conscience—the term Emile Durkheim coined to suggest the set of shared beliefs that unite us and provide us with a sense of belonging. Maybe we readily anoint people as heroes because it is a way for us to affirm our social identity and membership in a group. When our heroes are exposed as being less-than-perfect and we rush to their defense, our actions strengthen our collective conscience and further preserve the social order. And as David Bowie sings, and his own death demonstrates, many of us try to hold onto these heroes and the social bond they provide "forever and ever."


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