Once upon a time, there was a professional cyclist who took the world by storm. Lance Armstrong was the very best, like no one ever was. He claimed the Tour de France yellow jersey seven times in a row, smashing records along the way with his superhuman body. And what a role model he was to have conquered cancer and help others do the same with his Live Strong charity. And of course, he’s all-American! (remember how quickly people pounced on Ye Shiwen over doping allegations?) It’s quite the legend, and as it turns out, that’s all Lance ever was. And yet, people want to believe. To this day, there are some still processing the five stages of grief, unable to accept the death of a beloved hero in the face of damning evidence.
Armstrong’s rise and fall is hardly unfamiliar to the sporting world in which heroes are exposed as frauds or immoral or both on a regular basis. It’s hardly unique to sports; think of Roman Polanski with his supporters defending a child rapist (which I have mentioned in a previous blog post) or Steve Jobs’s notorious assholery (as Pirates of Silicon Valley illustrates all too well). Not even historical figures are immune to deviating from the hero ideal. Isaac Newton had enough crazy worldviews and asshole behaviour to fill a tabloid issue, to say nothing of Christopher Columbus. And yet, what causes us to fall for and cling to these myths time and time again? Why are such celebrities instinctively elevated to sainthood? What is the appeal of believing in “great men”? And why is it so hard to let go? Tough questions to be sure, but let’s see what we can make of the clues to the answer.
We tend to think in terms of binaries: in this instance, good and evil, and it is through this lens that our media shows us the world. Obviously, life doesn’t work that way. Being strongly analytical or creative doesn’t automatically make you a caring person, and yet because the former frames a person as a “hero”, positive traits are automatically implied by binary thinking, leading to cognitive dissonance when it turns out that’s not the case. Saying that Newton was more interested in occult studies or that Columbus enslaved indigenous Americans (not to mention the part about him not being the first to discover America relegated to the footnotes) doesn’t exactly fit neatly into a traditional historical narrative for the kiddies after all. Of course, being a douchebag doesn’t take away from a person’s real accomplishments, but doesn’t it make you think twice about worshipping said person?
And everyone loves a good story. Myths are compelling, uplifting, fantastic. We want to believe in human potential and greatness. We need a hero because they provide someone to look up to, what we could be. And when our fantasies become so much more compelling than reality, we tend to dwell on dreams and forget to live. This statement (from the infamous We are the 53% Tumblr) says far more about it than anything I could possibly write: The cancer still grows. That is the American Dream.
I think we should simply be more honest about our real life stories. We don’t need to canonize people; trying to neuter any possibly undesirable aspects of a person means presenting an incomplete image and seeing the actual person behind the image can be a compelling story in itself. I mean, Amadeus portrayed Mozart as an egotistic, irresponsible, bawdy party animal (which is by all accounts accurate), and it’s a great movie which also pays tribute to his majestic compositions. And we don’t need to look to distant celebrities for inspiration, for the human spirit is alive and well in the people around us and we actually know them beyond a mere image presented to us through media. Really, I prefer my heroes to be genuine rather than manufactured.