Every New Year starts with a media frenzy, offering us a buffet of role models. Reflective celebrities renewing their feminist vows in the post #metoo era. Ordinary heroes braving last year’s tragedies of hurricanes and terrorism. Past icons reviving in the history books. While the role models refresh every year, the idea of them as essential to our personal growth is unwavering.
What do we do when role models disappoint? The year 2017 saw a host of role models fall to the ground due to sexual misconduct allegations. Can Louis C.K make us laugh anymore? Is Charlie Rose still a brilliant anchor and Kevin Spacey still one of our favorite actors? Role models do not have the privilege of redemption. They are frozen as ideal types for us to emulate. When they lose their perfection, they appear no longer useful. We throw the baby out with the bathwater.
What about those who still enjoy the pedestal? Figures like Mahatma Gandhi, Mother Teresa and Winston Churchill are sacred to many. They are synonymous with peace, goodness and brilliance. Given their god-like status, it is no wonder that those who seek to dismantle them are framed as blasphemists.
When Arundhati Roy, the Booker prize-winning author, accused Gandhi of racism in South Africa and of being a supporter of the caste-system, there were open death threats against her. This was all in the name of the role model for nonviolence. As we dig deeper, Gandhi, while no doubt did remarkable things for Indian independence, was flawed.
Similarly, studies came out revealing Mother Teresa was not as altruistic to the poorest of the poor but rather, her sainthood was a media campaign by the ailing Catholic Church. As for Churchill it is no secret that alongside his accomplishments as a war leader, he also was a major supporter of colonialism. He was responsible for tremendous death and destruction in the former colonies of Africa and India through his policy, where natives were considered savages.
This begs the question of why we insist on role models for our children. Are we not numbing their critical senses with this form of idolatry practice? Why do we need fiction to aspire to when reality with its messiness is a better teacher? Can the youth not be accepting of who they are instead of convincing them to become something other than themselves?
So ask yourself this, do you really need a role model to be the best that you can be?
Payal Arora is an Associate Professor at Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication