What to Do When Our Heroes Fail Us
In the past few months, the American media has been filled with images of protestors pulling down public statues of racist historical figures — many of them Confederate soldiers. A startling number of these statues were created during the Jim Crow era for the express purpose of intimidating Black Americans; these sculptures depicting “heroes” of the Confederacy are often little more than monuments to what those supposed “heroes” stood for: slavery, segregation, and anti-Black violence. These sculptures were, quite literally, putting prejudices on a pedestal, and there is something powerful in seeing them removed.
As I’ve watched the triumphal toppling of these statues, though, it’s made me think, again, about what it means to create a monument or shrine to anyone, literally or metaphorically. So often, when we venerate someone as a personal hero, it’s because they have helped us to understand something about ourselves; they have helped us feel seen, heard, valuable in some way. They give us something to aspire to, even just in our daydreams.
But what do we do when we realize our personal heroes are just as problematic as our statues? When our heroes cease to be the wondrous figures we once imagined them to be?
It makes sense that our relationships with our personal heroes are always shifting. As we move through the world, our values and needs evolve, and what we want from our heroes evolves with us. But if it seems easy to support the removal of racist stonework, it is harder, emotionally, to face the prospect of tearing down someone we once genuinely looked up to, be it a friend, celebrity, artist, or historical figure, who has failed us in some way. Although this basic phenomenon is nothing new, it has taken on a notable sense of urgency and mass visibility in the era of social media, and, in particular, since the beginning of the #MeToo movement. These kinds of reckonings have been happening more and more frequently — both publicly and privately. And when someone was once one of the stars in our private pantheons, it feels harder, still, to grapple with the realization that they are no longer the resplendent things we once thought they were.