A few years ago, Charles Barkley got into a lot of trouble for making the audacious observation that sports figures didn’t need to be role models. Legions of fans and professional journalists (who are simply glorified fans with a byline) were outraged at this attack on the fundamental principle that the person who jumps highest must aim highest, the person who tackles the running back must also be able to tackle life’s problems with grace, the person who hits it out of the park must swing for the cheap seats in real life as well.
The problem is not that we look to these people for perfection when they take off their uniforms. It’s that we expect anyone to be our proxies for perfection, as if hitching our ordinary wagons to these extraordinary stars will pull us up with them, to heady heights.
That’s stupid, and it’s nonsense, and it makes the rest of us down here at the base of the pedestal lazy.
I get the importance of having heroes, the people who inspire us to cultivate the best potential within us and nurture our better angels. I personally have many heroes, from my mother, Lucy, to my favorite law professor, Howard, to the priest who counseled my father while he was dying to Lynne Abraham. Each of them has presented me with a reason to stand back, quietly, in awe.
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But these are personal contacts, people who have actually touched my hand and my heart, and who occupy a pedestal built of my own experiences and aspirations. To look at an athlete or actress who may or may not be pulling down an exorbitant salary and demand that he or she match the contours of our dreams is not only a waste of time, it’s dangerous. The danger comes in how this type of hero worship dehumanizes both the object of affection and the person who blindly adores. That was Barkley’s point, not that we should give public figures a pass for being flawed but that we shouldn’t abandon our own moral compasses and look to them for true north.
The flip side of hero worship is the anger that comes from dashed expectations. When the people we’ve anointed to carry our standards in sports, in the arts, in science, politics, music, the law and all the other fields where excellence is appreciated fall short of the mark, we turn on them with a passion. We do this out of a misplaced sense of betrayal, as if their failures somehow reflect poorly on us. It’s the exact opposite of what we’ve been taught to treasure as Americans: individuality. And when we feel betrayed, we push back.
Recently on a television program I participated in, the discussion turned to Kathleen Kane. Someone suggested that the fact that the first female attorney general in Pennsylvania was really mucking things up could have unfortunate repercussions for women seeking elected office. After digesting that twisted logic (which all but commanded we in the sisterhood politely ignore her absolute and abject failure), I offered the opinion that Kane was being justifiably criticized and that it was gross incompetence, not misogyny at the root of the attacks. After the show aired, I had people emailing to tell me that I was either (1) a traitor to the ovaries for publicly attacking a fellow female when we needed to stand together behind this “role model,” or (2) an idiot for not going a step further to say that this incompetent lawyer had made it harder for all women to move to the next level.
How depressing. Why should the inferior performance of one woman elicit such divergent but passionate views in people? The answer is obvious: Kane has stopped being an attorney general but has instead become The First Female Attorney General, complete with Wonder Woman bracelets and administrative bustier. She can’t just make a mistake and pay the normal consequences. She must be protected from the patriarchy by some shallow feminists, or burned at the stake to prevent other uppity women from considering running for office because, like any human, they might make a mess of it.
The same philosophy was at play when Clarence Thomas replaced Thurgood Marshall as the second black man to sit in the Supreme Court. As a “symbol,” he was supposed to make the right people proud of him. But because he had his own ideas, and these ideas took him out of liberal icon territory, he became the most reviled Supreme Court justice in modern history. Blacks had invested in this Supreme Court seat with their hopes and expectations, and this particular man’s conservative views felt like a personal betrayal. Which leads me to ask: What is the debt he owes, and to whom? It’s the same question I ask about Kane, who should be permitted to be mediocre without being protected by some women (something Thomas never got from the black community) or vilified by some men.
If we stopped trying to live our lives through the accomplishments of public figures, many of whom look and sound like us, we’d learn how to recognize the heroic character of those we might actually know, and the heroic potential within ourselves. Or, perhaps, the honesty to accept our ordinary humanity.
Sir Charles scored a three pointer on this one.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at email@example.com.
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