Even the best heroes have flaws
I have a random topic for you all since I don’t know how to write blogs. How do you judge historical figures that simultaneously paved the way for widespread societal progress while also subscribing to some of the most subjectively awful practices of human history? The question has come up for me a few times recently.
Two weekends ago at our book talk with the SJC students, Shalom, who most of us regard as a uniquely enlightened and articulate social sciences student, portrayed Gandhi in a way I’d never heard before. “Well, yeah, he was peaceful,” she said, “but he was a caste-ist.” We always praise him but in the end, he still believed that certain groups deserved fewer rights based on their condition of birth. I’m still very ignorant on the topic of Indian history, but the idea that one of the most revered figures in history is less than perfect struck me as unfamiliar for a moment, and then obvious.
Fast forward to this past weekend and our train ride back from Pondicherry. Anjanee asked the group I was with how American history was taught in our school, and naturally we launched into lecture mode. While going over the founding fathers, I remember us distinctly taking time to point out the false virtue of the authors of the Declaration of Independence demanding freedom from what they perceived as unjust oppression while concurrently owning slaves. The very next day in class we watched a powerful Ken Burns video on storytelling where he referenced the exact same hypocrisy.
In one more example, my AP World History class hosted mock trials where the students got to dress up and either prosecute or defend various historical figures. I can’t recall who I defended, but my team was assigned Christopher Columbus for our prosecution case. Everyone knows by now that Columbus was a pretty bad dude, and we won the case handily, but our country still celebrates Columbus Day every October. He quite literally journaled about taking Native American children into slavery, and yet some school districts still honor him with a day off.
In having these discussions and writing this piece, I’ve decided that I should try a little harder to refrain from labeling people as simply “bad” or “good,” as it’s usually a little more complex than that. As Ken Burns said, the best heroes have flaws and the best villains are the most compelling.