Why do we idealize other people? Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr. come to mind, as well as Mother Teresa and Gautama Buddha. This includes not only religious figures such as Jesus, Muhammad and Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, but also business tycoons such as Walt Disney and Steve Jobs, entertainment superstars and financials wizards; we love molding successful humans into bigger than life statues.
In an article I wrote several years ago with my friend Ran Baron, we discussed the idealization of religious icons. We titled the piece, “Why Jesus Never Used the Bathroom,” discussing the conflicted mind that is directed to strive for perfection, and therefore constantly fails. We explained how by making famous personas, especially of the past, flawless, we can then excuse ourselves from the effort of even trying. After all, try as I might, I may never be able to write as well as Ernest Hemingway, or, for that matter, play guitar like Paco de Lucía. But while in that specific article we focused on the damage such idealization does the self, here I would like to highlight the dangers such acts have for society.
Let’s take Gandhi for example. The Mahatma, I believe, would have likely been the first to admit of his many imperfections. Yet, he is being treated time and again as a sage and a symbol for obtaining peace without violence. This representation ignores the very specific circumstances surrounding Gandhi’s success, not to mention the fact that Gandhi ultimately failed in his later reconciliation efforts between Hindus and Muslims, resulting in one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. Likewise, Steve Jobs is often used as proof that innovation supersedes all previously gained experience. This is inaccurate on multiple levels. While innovation is indeed an important component, so is the understanding of the greater picture, timing, and simply luck. Furthermore, Jobs failed miserably on many occasions, not to mention the total failure of his strategy for handling his own health crisis; one that resulted in his premature departure from this world.
I believe it was Voltaire who once said “A witty saying proves nothing.”
Turning a person –what they said, wrote or preached, into an icon, provides us with an excuse to justify our misguided actions. Jihadists use lines such as: “And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution is worse than slaughter… and fight them until fitnah is no more, and religion is for Allah,” from the Quran to justify murderous activities. Muslim scholars will explain that such texts need to be taken in context of time, place, and the wider perspective of the particular scripture at hand. Yet, that will matter little for those who seek an excuse to draw blood.
Placing people atop pedestals, make the likes of Lenin and Hitler righteous. It allowed the Church to carry out what came to be known as the Medieval Inquisition against “sinners,” including endless torture and the burying of people alive, all in the name of Christ; the same Christ whose teachings could not have been further away from what transpired in his name.
When we use icons to justify our cause, we are committing a crime; a crime of ignorance and misrepresentation. No person is perfect, thus while such an individual may had a witty saying or two (or, for that matter, several dozens,) it still proves absolutely nothing. And as I am back to Voltaire, I will end this post with another sound piece of advice by this great yet imperfect French writer, historian and philosopher: “Love truth, but pardon error.”
Learned from: a discussion on Facebook.