In a media-obsessed world, where we track every potential pregnancy in the Kardashian-Jenner clan and happily pay hundreds of dollars to stand 20 rows back at a lip-synching pop artist’s concert, we often don’t take the time to recognize the many faults of our role models. And when we do unearth the seedy histories of our modern or historic heroes, it can be difficult to determine whether or not we can continue to appreciate the good they’ve done.
With the recent exposure of sexual assault in Hollywood and beyond, this question has been at the forefront of my mind (and I’m assuming the same for many others). One of the people whose sexual misconduct has most recently been revealed happens to be Al Franken, one of Minnesota’s state senators. Although even the term “altruistic politician” itself seems oxymoronic, when you elect someone into office, some part of you believes that person is ultimately a decent human being who will do what is best for their constituency. I have grown up hearing the name Al Franken in a positive light and even hearing stories of positive personal interactions with him from my friends’ parents. And yet now, upon hearing his name in a new light and hearing new stories of his extremely inappropriate behavior involving women, his legacy is forever tainted in my eyes. I have had conversations with other Minnesotans, during which they attempt to excuse his actions by mentioning his comedic background and explaining that certain things that are now completely unacceptable were once considered comical.
This is where things get complicated. Yes, it is true that as we progress as a society, certain widely-accepted behaviors are reconsidered to be unacceptable. And yes, it is true that Al Franken and other “celebrities” who have been accused of sexual assault have accepted responsibility for their previous actions. But is that enough? Is it fair to blame their extremely problematic and abusive actions on a previous societal acceptance of that behavior? Shouldn’t we expect more from our role models?
These questions do not only apply to modern heroes. They can also shed some important light on historical figures who have often been considered heroic or at least worthy of praise. I have seen Mahatma Gandhi’s famous words “Be the change you wish to see in the world” on many a young person’s Instagram bio, words that have never even been proven to have come from Gandhi. The reality is that most people’s knowledge of Gandhi begins and ends with his legacy as a peaceful activist and creator of instagrammable quotes. What they often don’t recognize is his history of racism and misogyny.
Putting anyone under a microscope will almost always reveal some distasteful truths. There are countless celebrities who have appropriated cultures in their “festival attire” and comedians who have used derogatory terms to which they have no right. Do we accept that these people are humans who make mistakes and move on? Or do we refuse to forgive their actions in recognition of their platform’s ability to have serious repercussions on society?
At the end of the day, this moral dilemma – like most of its kind – will never have a clear-cut answer. If we refuse to see the good in anyone once their ugly truths come to the surface, we may be stretched thin for any kind of role model. However, if we completely ignore our idols’ wrongdoings, we are enabling their precedent. We will simply have to decide whether we want to continue listening to music created by artists who capitalize upon cultural appropriation, watching movies directed by known sexual predators, praising certain historical figures whose activism was conditional, or supporting politicians who may not practice what they preach. We will have to decide if it is worth redeeming our heroes when they’ve made serious mistakes.