Comment: The Problem with People

This is the first in the series of Nee Hao’s COMMENT section which welcomes the articles and sharing of views of East Asian diaspora populations around the globe. Our aim is to promote journalism, dialogue and critical thinking, particularly amongst youth.

If so requested in the email, authors are welcome to submit anonymously or with a pen name to [email protected] on political and social matters of importance. Note that the views expressed in this series do not reflect those of Nee Hao Magazine or their editorial staff in any capacity whatsoever. We welcome replies in form of letters to the editor, of which a select few may be published. 

WITH Nelson Mandela’s death, there has been a tremendous outpour of adulation and paying of respects to a man that many acknowledged as a great symbol of hope and reconciliation. World leaders converged on South Africa to pay homage to the former leader of the troubled nation of South Africa.

There was admiration and acclaim for his approach of reconciliation between races as opposed to a call to arms in retribution, as many whites feared. His handing of the 1995 World Rugby Cup to the victorious South African captain, Francois Pienaar, an Afrikaner, was a genuine gesture hoping to unite his nation. For a team reviled as a symbol of white oppression, Mandela was able to turn such a previously poisoned symbol into one of national pride and unity.

Amongst the near universal praise from some nations for such earnest acts, one would wonder what reactions would be provoked by asking those in the crowd how they felt about Nelson Mandela awarding the late Momar Gaddafi the Order of Good Hope in 1997? That this award is the highest honour South Africa can bestow upon a citizen from another nation?

Did the leaders coming together address Mandela’s admission of having knowingly neglected the HIV/AIDS epidemic in South Africa and instead left it to his successor, Thabo Mbeki? That HIV/AIDS denial and misinformation was rooted in malicious and corrupt government institutions?

That despite the praise coming from the West, Mandela was a fierce detractor of American foreign policy, in particular with regards to Palestine and Cuba?

Would one expect anger at the mere suggestion that Mandela was a less than perfect symbol of hope? Outright denial? Rationalisation or justification for his actions? Accusations of racial bigotry? Or would one see the crowd acknowledge his shortcomings and see him as human and be able to separate the idea from the man?

Sadly, with the far too common attacks and vilification of his critics it is clear the latter is a minority. Mandela represents too much to be open to criticism. What he represents far outweighs his failures as both a statesman and a person.

Therein lies the problem with our society; people place such a tremendous emotional investment in their idols and heroes that the human being is lost in the adulation. With the truth, no matter how uncomfortable, trampled by the rushing adoring crowds, the opportunity for change is diminished.

The present state of South Africa is self-evident. Rape is endemic. Crime is rampant. Economic disparity is greater than ever. 32 miners shot dead during a work action are but a stark reminder of his legacy in South Africa. Without truth and the ability to see faults in the most beloved of leaders, objective criticism is muzzled and true change cannot occur.

This hero-worship begins from childhood. Young children see their parental figures as infallible, all-knowing, and all-powerful. They do what they are told simply because the trust and emotional investment they place in their parents is absolute.

As they grow and develop the beginnings of critical thinking, they begin to see the cracks in this infallible image. They begin to notice inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and faults of their parental figures. Their emerging ability to self-determine ties in with their own emerging perceptions of reality and the societal norms of their cultures. They begin to say no. They begin to challenge authority, which prior to their actualisation was absolute.

They begin to openly rebel and strive for independence. They travel through a turbulent period where they begin to challenge everything they have been taught and have seen.

What follows for many, but not all, is peace. They accept that their parents are not perfect all-powerful beings but rather flawed people as they themselves are flawed. They now look up to their parents with a more objective eye and begin to appreciate moral lessons with a grain of salt.

With this new view of authority and role models, it is perplexing that this skill fades in the adult world.

In the political spectrum branding is a powerful tool. Entire parties and governments often rest upon the shoulders of one individual. The general public who is not always aware of a particular group’s policies or past voting history will often have much less difficulty identifying its leader.

A leader’s character becomes paramount to the successful branding of a party and so every effort to made to espouse their strengths and personal beliefs. In short, everything rests on the perceived character of the leader.

This is not to say a deliberate cult of personality is fostered; cults of personality can appear spontaneously on their own, through the momentum generated by political success. People, through the unconscious desire to conform or even not conform, invariably have their opinions affected by those around them.

This placing of character on pedestals inevitably clashes with the realities of politics; quid pro quo is very often the only way to achieve goals in an internecine global community. Compromises to achieve long-term goals soon involve moral compromises. Deals with devils to vanquish more greater devils mean that with each compromise, the morally pure position is soon deconstructed.

And yet it is in this very internecine global community that people latch onto those whom they believe possess enough strength of character to lead them.

Leaders become role models. Role models become idols. And idols, in some environments or through deliberate cultivation of cults of personality, become demi-gods.

The leader is thus elevated above normal kin even in liberal societies. They are great people. They represent the hopes and desires of their followers. The emotional investment has to potential to grow until the people cannot not accept the concept of an imperfect leader. Critics are themselves attacked. Dissonance rationalises or denies any contradictory information.

In all the adulation, protectiveness, and apologist behaviour, the human is lost. Leaders transcend normal boundaries and begin to personify the ideals and hopes of their movement. Leaders that take measures to show humility and admit shortcomings are met with even more adulation and hero worship.

For the greater good of the leader and party, party members either fall upon their own swords or are mercilessly culled from the herd in times of crisis and scandal.

Therefore it is tragic that when the walls come crashing down and the realities of human faults are virtually impossible to ignore the outcome is just as severe. Those with huge emotional investments can suffer soul crushing disenfranchisement and disillusionment. If their hero is so flawed, then certainly the others must be too. Alternatively, the people can latch onto their dissonance to an even greater degree, rationalising even the most atrocious behaviour and vilifying those that would dare bring down their idols.

It is of great note that not all leaders are vulnerable. In the political, indeed in the spectrum of the entire global community, there are sacred cows.

Religious leaders are particularly resistant to criticism as faith requires the ultimate emotional investment; one’s very concept of self is placed in the hands of mortal men. Pope Francis, for example, is receiving worldwide acclaim for his message of peace, tolerance, and humility. The public, in its desire to move past the dark years of the child abuse scandal, have found their saviour in him and their faith restored. The tragedy is that the Church’s child abuse scandal is in fact still on-going. What further compounds the issue is that Pope Francis’ celebrity and personification of faith blind his followers to the truth. The child abuse will continue to persist so long as wilful blindness and denial prevail.

Certain political leaders can escape judgment, such as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Considered one of the most respected and beloved of American Presidents, many of his admirers would be quick to dismiss or rationalise his racial snubbing of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics. The snubbing was later falsely attributed to Adolf Hitler. Others are silent on his poor treatment of Jewish refugees fleeing Europe.

In contrast, sporting icons and media celebrities are ideal targets for scandals.

Lance Armstrong came to embody the hope and struggle against cancer. In almost fairytale-like fashion Armstrong defeated cancer and defeated the Tour de France. Persistent rumours of doping were attributed to jealous detractors. When the truth emerged and was finally undeniable, his followers turned on him with equal vigour. Armstrong was disowned, disavowed, and in short time, became virtually radioactive.

Armstrong brought his final end upon himself. He was at long last exposed as an abusive, deceitful, and tyrannical bully. What deserves attention, however, was the fact that the accusations were not new. The detractors were drowned out over the roar of the crowds shouting their adoration.

This is not to say Armstrong deserves vilification and demonisation; Armstrong deserves what he himself denied the public: the truth. He deserves a forthright and complete account of his actions and should be held accountable accordingly.

As with all leaders, for true progress to be made and full accountability made possible, there can be no sacred cows. There can be no uncomfortable truths. Any truth, no matter how ugly, must take precedence over a beautiful lie. The concept of respect for the dead can be no barrier for the truth.

Followers must remember to reign in their emotional investments and always keep open a sceptical eye.. No leader is above the crowd. No leader is beyond criticism and accountability. Mistakes and compromises will always occur and they must be seen in an objective light.

There will always be leaders. Leaderless movements have the appeal of cooperation and equality but easily falter in the face of a determined and directed opposition. Many attribute the failure of the Occupy Movement for its lack of leadership and its more communal and collaborative structure. The result was a movement that lost momentum and support for its mercurial goals and lack of direction.

They lost themselves waiting for their White Knight.

Nelson Mandela represented great ideals and concepts. He accomplished much in the face of brutal oppression and hate. The man, however, was much less than perfect. His legacy is stained with issues regarding corruption, inequality, and violence. To keep his symbol alive the man must be separated from the symbol. No person owns an idea. No person holds authority over a concept.

Mandela can teach us an important lesson in over investing with our emotions. His death is no reason to overlook his shortcomings. He also had noble intentions and accomplished much in his life.

Mandela, like our parents, can be a flawed role model. He is flawed because he is human.

With an objective and open mind, the truth will emerge. And the truth shall not always set us free. It shall instead give us the clarity to take action to set ourselves free.

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