Americans love political villains. For some on the left, Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., accommodated that need last week. His statement that he wouldn’t accept the speakership of the House if he had to give up time with his family was met with swift charges of hypocrisy. But aren’t we really looking for heroes whenever we’re so quick to identify a villain?
Ryan’s sin, in Erin Gloria Ryan’s words, was spending “much of his political career fighting laws that promote realistic work-life balance for parents of all socioeconomic levels.” If he hadn’t, she wrote “asking for family time would make him look more like a hero and less like a hypocrite.”
Jessica Valenti at The Guardian separated the message from the messenger though. “It’s fantastic to see a male politician prioritize his family life as he considers a national position of power,” she wrote, before concluding, “let’s point out Ryan’s hypocrisy and take him to task on his policies — but let’s do it strategically.”
That strategic approach isn’t how Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley responded to the revelations about Exxon’s climate change research. The two Democratic presidential candidates joined a few members of Congress and a small chorus of scientists and activists calling for an investigation by the Justice Department.
As I wrote last week, the oil giant funded research which reportedly showed links between burning fossil fuels and the rise in global temperatures. However, their public position has been that human activity isn’t contributing to climate change. If that’s true, did they break a federal law?
The problem is a criminal investigation would more than likely put Exxon on the defensive and seriously delay a full release of their findings. For anyone who believes climate change is the greatest threat to civilization, the critical need is to put a spotlight on that information, not identify a villain. Like Valenti’s nuanced approached to Ryan’s story, we need to slow down and look for ways to leverage Exxon’s research toward a greater good.
If we can avoid turning Ryan and Exxon into villains, do we still need heroes for these causes? Who would they be and what purposes could they serve?
Scott T. Allison is professor of psychology at the University of Richmond and has written several books about heroes and leadership. “Heroes show us the secrets to unlocking our fullest potential as human beings,” he wrote when reflecting on the legacy of Nelson Mandela. “They do so by role-modeling virtue, by clarifying complex and paradoxical life truths, by equipping us with emotional intelligence, and by revealing how their journey can be our journey, too.”
Like Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr. is remembered as America’s civil rights hero. His story leads us to the nonviolent resistance effectively practiced by Mohandas K. Gandhi. And one of the primary influences in Gandhi’s life was Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience.”
For many in America’s environmental movement, Thoreau’s book “Walden” earned him the title of national hero. But in a recent New Yorker article titled “Pond Scum,” Kathryn Schulz questions why we admire him at all given “his hypocrisy, his sanctimony, his dour asceticism, and his scorn.” For evidence, Schulz quotes directly from Walden. “Sometimes, when I compare myself with other men” Thoreau wrote, “it seems as if I were more favored by the gods than they.”
Yes, Thoreau’s personality was villainous. And he never led a movement or brought about change in his time. Maybe that’s because, as Schultz pointed out, he was too absorbed in his own little world.
But Gandhi was a genuinely humble man inspired by Thoreau’s writings. He never glamorized Thoreau’s life or focused on his faults. In following Gandhi’s model, King also separated the message from the messenger and applied it to his cause. The hero was born from an idea, not the person.
We’re not supposed to worship real life heroes. They’re not gods, and we don’t want to be reduced to a cult. As Allison suggests, our journey can mirror theirs if we look at them as teachers instead of heroic personalities.
“Be the change that you wish to see in the world,” Gandhi famously said. Whether its family values, climate change or any other issue that means looking inward first, if we can discover the hero within us there would be less of a need for superheroes, both fictional and real. And maybe then we wouldn’t spend time looking for villains to condemn.
• Rich Moniak lives in Juneau and is a retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience in the public sector.