Working part-time at a local bookstore is a great reprieve from the isolation of my studies. Just as I get to know many customers’ personal lives, so too have many of them learned that I’m a doctoral student working towards her (hopefully) last major proficiency exam. When they ask me what I’m reading that day, I therefore have an opportunity to frame my studies as something useful for a general audience–and sometimes this effort goes well, but at other times the real learning experience is my own.
Two weeks ago, the book of the day was Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man (1871), a work I’d only read excerpts from in the past. When a customer asked about its relevance, I explained that this was the work in which Darwin–ever tentative about rocking the boat with his research–made explicit that human beings were subject to his theory of evolution by natural selection, too. This book caused tremendous controversy for precisely that reason, though Darwin had gone to great lengths to forestall his comments on human evolutionary behaviours until after extensive (and I mean extensive) review of the physiognomy, general behaviour, and mating pressures among various species of molluscs, fish, insects, birds, quadrupeds, and other primate species first.
But The Descent of Man has cultural significance in another capacity, too, so my synopsis for the customer included that this was also the text in which Darwin, every bit a person of his time, corrals his extensive field research on other species to make sweeping comments about the mental inferiority of women, to say nothing about the general inferiority of non-white persons. For instance:
“The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman—whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands. If two lists were made of the most eminent men and women in poetry, painting, sculpture, music (inclusive both of composition and performance), history, science, and philosophy, with half-a-dozen names under each subject, the two lists would not bear comparison. We may also infer, from the law of the deviation from averages, so well illustrated by Mr. Galton, in his work on ‘Hereditary Genius,’ that if men are capable of a decided pre-eminence over women in many subjects, the average of mental power in man must be above that of woman.”
“It seems at first sight a monstrous supposition that the jet-blackness of the negro should have been gained through sexual selection; but this view is supported by various analogies, and we know that negroes admire their own colour. With mammals, when the sexes differ in colour, the male is often black or much darker than the female; and it depends merely on the form of inheritance whether this or any other tint is transmitted to both sexes or to one alone. The resemblance to a negro in miniature of Pithecia satanas with his jet black skin, white rolling eyeballs, and hair parted on the top of the head, is almost ludicrous.”
I wouldn’t call it “enjoyable” to read such assertions–to encounter work after work (especially ones written from a position of authority, be it scientific, religious, or political) making such petty, ignorant comments at the expense of other human beings–but as a student of literary history, I find neither of these to be shocking or exceptional prejudices. They hurt, granted, but they hurt in largest part because they attest to much broader histories of exclusion and oppression. I do tend to forget, however, that many others have a different relationship with persons of note: a relationship that tends to cushion the individual from their context whenever we like something that individual did. And indeed, the customer who’d first asked about my reading was deeply troubled by my summary. “Darwin said that?” he said. “Darwin believed that?”
I tried to emphasize that Darwin’s comments did not erase his many positive contributions, but the damage was done. To try to offset these uglier aspects of Darwin’s biography, I then blundered further, by pointing out that even prominent early-20th-century suffragists, women who made great strides towards gender equality under the law, still advocated (as a great many did at the time) for eugenics policies–but this only saddened the customer further.
Now, by no means do I consider this customer’s reaction unique, but it was affecting, and I am more familiar with the other side of this flawed argument: people, that is, who will dismiss any significant contribution by a prominent individual because of some perceived failing elsewhere in their biography.
Last year, for instance, while studying for my first major exam, I made the mistake of marvelling at an historical echo: comparing, that is, John Stuart Mill’s succinct moral argument against Christianity (as found in his 1873 Autobiography, describing his childhood move from religion) with the equally succinct moral argument against Christianity used by Christopher Hitchens in more recent debate. Both regarded the notion of vicarious redemption through Christ as morally bankrupt, so the only real difference was that Hitchens could add, through a conservative estimate of the age of our species provided by modern anthropology, the absurdity of believing that a loving god watched “with folded arms” for some 95,000 years before acting to redeem the species, and even then only through barbaric sacrificial rites.
My fundamental point entailed how little had changed in these arguments–how vicarious redemption was an affront to young Mill in the early 19th century just as it was to seasoned Hitchens in the early 21st century–but my colleague interjected by shifting the conversation. This person was incredulous that I would invoke Hitchens at all, with his foreign policy views being what they were–and didn’t I know what kind of uncomfortably antiquated views he once shared about working women and motherhood?
My customer’s implicit tethering of historical significance to modern moral character, as well as my colleague’s dismissal of an argument on the basis of the speaker’s other beliefs, both rely on a fallacious connection between a person’s assertions in a given field, and that person’s actions in another. This isn’t to say that there is never transference between spheres (for instance, a researcher does not lose their knack for researching just by changing the topic of their research) but the existence of such transference still needs to be demonstrated unto itself. (So to carry forward the analogy, if a researcher who’s demonstrated excellence in one field comes out with a book involving another field, but that work lacks proper citation for all major claims therein, we would be safe in assuming that an adequate transfer of pre-existing research skills to new topics had not been demonstrated.)
These troubles of course resonate with that well-known philosophical fallacy, argumentum ad hominem (argument [in reference] to the man [doing the arguing]). But to invoke this fallacy on its own is, I think, to overlook the bigger picture: the powerfully human frustration many of us share with the acts of hero-worship we as individuals and as communities reinforce every day.
One of my favourite examples of this tension lies with Paracelsus, the 16th-century physician who railed against the practice of accepting the truth of a given medical claim based on the prestige of its original author. Instead, he argued that the human body had its own store of healing power, that diseases could be identified by predictable sets of symptoms, and that personal experimentation was thus to be preferred to taking the word of someone, say, in fancy dress, boasting cures made of exotic ingredients, who had simply studied the words of ancient healers in selective institutions of learning.
But as Paracelsus became popular for his resistance to classist medical practices (since the mystification and centralizing of medical “knowledge” only really served the interests of gentleman practitioners), his own ego, in conjunction with an eagerness among many others to defer to perceived authority, meant that, even as he championed self-knowledge, Paracelsus was also quick to declare himself a monarch of medical practice, and so to gain followers in turn.
In essence: Whenever it garners popularity, even resistance to groupthink can generate a sort of groupthink of its own.
The 19th century played its role in glorifying this human tendency, too. Thomas Carlyle’s “Great Man” theory of history–a way of constructing cultural mythology that fixates on narratives of individual virtue and genius–still pervades our thinking so thoroughly that we tend to pluck our “heroes” from their historical and cultural contexts, or otherwise strip them from the fullness of their humanity, in order to exalt specific contributions they might have made. The potential for error here is twofold: 1) in treating any human being as perfect, or approaching perfection, due to the significance of their words and actions; and 2) in condemning entirely the work of any person who, once exalted, is thereafter found to be (shockingly) an imperfect human being.
But therein lies the difficult catch: What if someone else–or a whole community of someone-elses–has already committed the first error? What if you’re born into a culture that already exalts certain human beings as essentially without fault, either by claiming them to be virtuous directly or by downplaying all the problematic aspects of their life stories?
How can we counteract the effect of this first error, save by risking the second?
This is no idle, ivory-tower conundrum, either: Whenever we uphold the merit of an argument through the presumed impeccability of its speaker’s character, we leave ourselves open to losing that argument the first time its speaker’s character ceases to be impeccable. And yet, we cannot allow people to remain in positions of authority whose “imperfections” perpetuate serious social harm, either through word or through act. So what option remains?
More history seems to me the only answer: The more we understand and accept the fallibility of all our most notable figures, the more we can dismantle routines of hero-worship before they ever get so extreme as to require the fallacious distraction of character assassination in the first place.
Now, obviously this kind of work runs at odds with many spiritual beliefs: beliefs in living representatives of a god on earth; beliefs in a human being who is also a god; and beliefs in human beings who claim to have transcended to another plane of existence, be it through yoga, meditation, or drugs. But even most people who would consider themselves spiritual can appreciate the danger of charismatic leader-figures–the present-day godhead of Kim Jong-Un; the Stalins and Pol-Pots and Hitlers of history; the Mansons and the Joneses of smaller, still devastating cults. So there is some common ground from which to begin this conversation-shifting work.
What we now need to put on offer, as a culture, is a way of valuing significant social contributions unto themselves. When we separate those contributions from the maintenance of individual reputations, we only further benefit society by making the process of refining those contributions easier down the line. Likewise, we need to acknowledge figures of note in the most dignified way possible: by not erasing their personhood in the process. When we allow even those who contribute significantly to their communities to continue to be seen as human beings, and therefore ever-in-process, we make the path to positive social contribution seem less unattainable (and hazardous) for others.
Granted, hero-worship is an understandable cultural norm. Many of us want to be inspired by the work of human beings who’ve come before us, and want to imagine ourselves as the potential site of inspiration for others in turn. But whether our hero-worship is fixed on a record-breaking athlete, or a soldier awarded for valour, or a scientist who made a significant breakthrough that will save thousands of lives, or an activist who stood up to oppression in a way that rallied others to their cause, or a community organizer or family member who, in their own, lesser-known way made a terrific impact on our quality of life… hero-worship still sets an untenably high standard for us all.
When that athlete emerges as a perpetrator of rape, or that soldier is found to have tortured prisoners during their tour of duty, or that scientist to have plagiarized prior work, or that activist to have resorted to brutal acts against civilians in their resistance efforts, or that community organizer or family member to have molested children, we are all rightfully devastated. And yet, even then, we tend to get defensive, and our knee-jerk response is often to make excuses for the individual–as if histories of significant action can ever be reduced to stark lists of pros and cons. No, X hours of community service do not excuse the predation of Y children; and no, X impressive rescue missions do not entitle anyone to Y assaults on inmates.
But if we really want to nip such heinous rationalizations in the bud, what we need is a better social narrative for human contributions in general. Here, then, are a few suggestions as to actions we can all take to deflate the culture of hero-worship that muddies the waters of so many critical conversations. If you have others, I welcome their addition in the comments:
1) Practise making biographical assertions without using the rhetoric of relativism, even (or especially) when those biographical notes are ugly. For instance: 1) David Hume held deeply racist views about non-white persons. 2) David Hume’s racist views, and his expression of them in his writings, were commonly accepted in his culture. 3) David Hume’s writings include significant contributions to the history of philosophy. Not “BUT these views were commonly accepted” and not “BUT David Hume’s writings include”. Ask yourself, too, why such rationalizations seemed relevant in the first place.
2) Do not deny your revulsion at the destructive words and actions of your fellow human beings–not even those who have long since passed on. Do ask yourself what destructive behaviours future humans might be equally repulsed by among people of our day and age. How much do our words and actions really differ from those of past figures of note? What is the most effective way to forward a given conversation without recapitulating their errors?
3) If spiritual, put aside notions of divine inspiration when assessing the conduct and argumentation of religious leaders and historical icons. Is their conduct and argumentation impeccable (that is, distinct from the flaws we see in other human beings)? If not, ask yourself what benefit is derived from shielding these flaws under notions of divine sanction. And what are the risks?
4) If not spiritual, consider a prominent figure you find yourself defending the most in conversation. Are you defending the validity of the person’s arguments, or the person’s character (with the implication that by defending the person’s character you’re still defending the legitimacy of their arguments)? If the latter, why, and to what end? How does this forward meaningful discourse?
Hero-worship starts early, and our media culture is exceptionally good at building people past and present up to untenable standards of excellence. Once there, we often defend the reputations of these “Great People” so zealously that we limit our ability to build upon their greatest contributions, or else bind their characters and their contributions so tightly together that when the former falls, so too, in the public eye, does the relevance of the latter.
If any single, pithy adage could thus sum up the quality of discourse possible in such a culture, it might read: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” Eleanor Roosevelt’s name is most often associated with this assertion, but it wouldn’t matter one whit to the quality of this statement if someone else had said it first.
…Which is a relief, because the saying has a far older, most likely anonymous provenance. So without denying the many difficult and outright ugly histories that surround our achievements, I have to ask: How many of our best works might be easier to build upon or amend if we could just get past the celebrity-status (for better or worse) of any human beings therein involved?