A version of this piece was published on the front page of the Sunday Times Review section on February 24th 2013.
It ends with the catastrophic fall from grace, but it starts with us. All of us, ordinary people, fans and followers, the media and the machineries of marketing and brand creation. We take note of a person’s sublime performances and we elevate them to the status of icon, hero, role model, even saint. They become potent symbols of our own yearning for achievement against the odds, for perfection and omnipotence.
And then we lose sight of their humanity and, sadly, very often so do they. In colluding with the myth-making, we allow our celebrities and heroes to believe they are somehow not bound by natural laws and the normal civilities. So we withhold the necessary corrective feedback when they behave badly and then one day it all comes crashing down.
Oscar, Lance, Tiger and Hansie. They have broken our hearts and betrayed our trust. But remember it started with us.
Somebody asked me recently why we even need heroes, but the question is pointless. Heroes and icons are inevitable. Their existence tells us something about our aspirations and something equally important about our needs and weaknesses.
Inevitably, we idealise. I imagine that there are good evolutionary reasons why we seek larger-than-life heroes as role models. We feel we can learn from their strategies and attitudes, and there is potential survival value in following the path they have taken.
Heroes also make us feel better about the world and we draw inspiration from their triumphs against the odds.
For a while Oscar Pistorius showed us that it is possible to be born physically disabled and still make the final of an open Olympic event. Ashwin Willemse showed us that it is possible to be born in the Cape Flats and sworn into a gang, yet still play for the Springboks one day. Nelson Mandela had tea with Betsy Verwoerd and modelled a degree of forgiveness and reconciliation that was almost superhuman in its transcendence of trauma and bitterness.
Up to a point these are inspiring stories, promises of a better life no matter our circumstances. That’s why there have always been and always will be heroes. And that’s why we tend to cast these heroes as role models.
At the same time, heroes have been letting us down throughout history. Lucifer was a fallen angel while Adam and Eve were kicked out of the Garden of Eden. Darth Vader was once Anakin Skywalker, Jedi Warrior, until he joined the Dark Side. Charles Lindbergh, aviator and all-American hero of the 1920s, turned out to be a Nazi sympathiser, while our own Winnie Mandela, Mother of the Nation, was directly implicated in the kidnapping and assault (and eventual death) of 14-year old Stompie Moeketsi. Lance Armstrong beat cancer and drug testing protocols, and Oscar Pistorius … well, you get the point.
Nevertheless, our blind faith in heroes is often at the expense of the truth. Psychologists say this idealisation has its roots in the infantile defence mechanisms of ‘splitting’ and ‘primitive idealisation and devaluation.’
Splitting is seeing people or situations as either all good or all bad, so we unconsciously choose not to know about the messy and dangerous parts of our superheroes (and ourselves). We let ourselves believe that the villain is the Other and that he’s out there. That’s why our fairy tales are full of the polarities of good fairy godmothers and wicked witches, perfect princes and scheming barons, trusty steeds and bloodthirsty dragons.
Idealisation and devaluation are part of the same process. When we idealise celebrities, sports heroes or people in our own lives, we allow ourselves to know only what we admire about them. But when they disappoint us we are can see only what is spoiled and bad.
All defence mechanisms help us manage anxiety and protect us from what may be overwhelming or distressing. However, a central task of psychological maturity is the capacity to tolerate knowing that everybody, including people we admire and love and people we fear and dislike, and ourselves, are neither all good nor all bad. We need to integrate the difficult feelings evoked by this sometimes unsettling reality.
My thoughts have been prompted by Oscar Pistorius’s explosive and horrifying fall from grace. Obviously, terms and conditions apply to my next statements. We don’t know what really happened and we need to be careful neither to condemn nor absolve until the truth is exposed.
If, however, it turns out that Oscar (first names only for heroes) is found guilty we shouldn’t be that surprised. After all, we have been complicit in the myth-making. What Oscar has achieved is amazing, but there has been plenty of evidence along the way of as darker side. There are the alleged shooting incidents, police call-outs to domestic disturbances, disgruntled ex-girlfriends, boat crashes, risk-taking behaviours and so on. In many articles I’ve re-read about Oscar, journalists describe a whole range of dangerous behaviours and ominous portents but seem unwilling to come to any conclusion other than that these are part of a heroic temperament.
If, however, Oscar turns out to be innocent of any intention to kill, my argument still holds: he then turns out not be the monster we created either, but a man of enormous grit, charm and flawed impulses.
There is another explanation for our tendency to idealise heroes and make them into role models. We could argue, for example, that Oscar was good at running on blades, that’s all. Joost van der Westhuizen was good at rugby, Tiger Woods was a star golfer, Mel Gibson was a compelling actor, that’s all.
That is, we take a piece of known information about our heroes and we generalise it, and that little bit of them we know becomes the all of them. Oscar had courage and extraordinary levels of determination grit, and he was successful. So we assumed this meant he was the good guy in his private life and in the way he treated women, even if there were signs that this might not be the case.
When we are finally confronted with the ugly truth, it challenges the way we have arranged the world in our minds and it disturbs our equilibrium. We thought we knew our heroes, even though we really knew very little about them. We feel humiliated, foolish and angry because we believed in their goodness, even their greatness. Ask Lance Armstrong’s fanboys and public defenders. The final step is as inevitable as it is self-defeating – we move from idealisation to devaluation. We can hear no more good about our tarnished role model.
On the subject of role models and public perception, whenever I witness the latest downfall I find myself turning once again to the ideas of the writer George Orwell. Orwell is a role model for how to look at role models, so to speak.
In an essay on Ghandi, Orwell was critical of the idea of saints (or heroes). He wrote ‘Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent … The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid.’
So, too, the worshipping of saints and heroes.
We can still have heroes and objects of fantasy, but they should not be confused with role models. As the former American basketball player, Charles Barkley, put it, ‘I’m not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.’
For these we should look closer to home. Parents who overcome their difficult pasts to raise sturdy, happy children, teenagers who overcome tragedy to succeed at school, nurses who deliver babies in the middle of the night, the vet who strokes your dog’s head while he passes away – these are the kind of ordinary role models we should draw our children’s attention to.
New York writer Madeleine George sums it up well: “… if you need your heroes to be perfect, you won’t have very many. Even Superman had his Kryptonite. I’d rather have my heroes be more like me: trying to do the right thing, sometimes messing up. Making mistakes. Saying you’re sorry. And forgiving other people when they mess up, too.”