Over at Impossible Me Abbeycadabra had an interesting post in which she wrote about author Neil Gaiman with whom she shares a lot of literary interests, so much so that she considers him a ‘hero’. She is well aware of the danger of having heroes, given that so many public figures whom one once liked or admired have later revealed themselves to have quite obnoxious views on some major issues (the number of such people is too large and the names too well-known to be worth listing), so she is naturally relieved that so far he has not had any unflattering things revealed about him. But she shares the same feeling of unease that all of us have that some figure we look up to might have some dark secret revealed.
While I myself avoid the use of the word ‘hero’ (it sounds vaguely medieval and over-adulatory to me) there are public figures whom I admire. But nobody is perfect or have imperfections that so perfectly match one’s own that one does not notice them. So one is bound to encounter some piece of information about a person whom one admires that is not congruent with one’s expectations of them. This is inevitable. The question is what to do when that happens. Do you ignore the bad news and become an apologist? Do you decide that the good outweighs the bad? Or do you wash your hands of the person?
I think that the problem is seeing it as a dichotomous choice and a question of loyalties, that when it comes to some public figure X, one is forced to choose between being on ‘Team X’ or ‘anti-Team X’. While one may start out as being on Team X, it is not necessary that any bad news should automatically shift one to anti-team X. It all depends on the nature of the news and how X responds to being confronted with it.
I tend to be forgiving about people who say or do something out of ignorance or because the world has moved on and they have been left behind. I think that is not uncommon. This attitude is likely because I can look in the mirror and see in my own past that I have held views that simply horrify me now and would hope that people would be forgiving if some of the views I held back then became public.
The real issue is what someone does when confronted with their unsavory past. If they acknowledge it and say that this was something they deeply regret and have tried to move past and hope to do better in the future, then I think one should let it go.
But there is a descending scale of responses. If they try to try to minimize it, deflect it. or issue a non-apology (which seems to be a common response), then that is unfortunate but not necessarily a major offense. This is because I think such a response is a reflexively defensive move since people do not like to recognize their own faults, especially when it emerges suddenly, and it takes some time for it to sink in. This kind of response is often a way station on the way to a realization that they were wrong and hopefully over time they will get there. I think they should be encouraged to complete that journey. However, if they repeat this over and over again, then they are clearly in a state of deep denial and one is justified in being less forgiving.
The more serious issue is if they get angry and either deny what they said or did or double down and take even more extreme positions and attack their critics. This is often the case with very prominent people with big egos who think that any acknowledgment that they are not perfect or have been wrong will cause their world to come crumbling down. Often they are outraged that a member of the unwashed masses has the temerity to criticize them. Such people tend to be hopeless cases and we are justified in washing our hands of them.
I think that even if we do not go so far as to call people heroes or otherwise idolize them, having high expectations of people can be a good thing even if it guarantees that we will get disappointed from time to time. The reason is that it encourages people to try to live up to the expectations that others have of them. For those who care what others think of them, especially those close to them and whom they care about, being held in high esteem can be a motivating factor for good behavior. Being too cynical about people and too quick to believe the worst about them and criticize them harshly may not be the most productive way to respond.
So basically, I think that we should not shift too quickly from Team X to anti-Team X because X committed some transgression. There is something to be said for being critical while allowing some time and space for their better selves to emerge.