8 Questions We Asked While Grappling With Our Flawed Heroes In An Age Of Accountability
Jun 23, 2023   •   Tim Henares
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Jun 23, 2023   •   Tim Henares
Whenever people complain about Cancel Culture, they often point back to historical figures who we all look up to and bring up their problematic behavior. For example, did you know that Martin Luther King was found to have plagiarized passages from his Doctoral dissertation back in the day? Now, while it’s not exactly a crime against humanity, doesn’t that mean that under today’s standards, we should be canceling MLK?
We’ll leave that discussion to people more knowledgeable than us. Our skin in the game is our Pinoy heroes. Especially since a recent post wanted us to not put Juan Luna’s artwork on exhibit because it turns out, one of the greatest Filipino painters of all time was a violent husband who murdered his wife and his mother-in-law.
A person like that shouldn’t just be canceled — they should clearly be behind bars! Yet here we are in 2023, completely glossing over these details. So what are we to make of this at a time when the demand for accountability is at an all-time high? The answer, sadly, isn’t quite simple….
We all have different ways of addressing this, and that’s okay. For some, they believe that someone as monstrous as Juan Luna should never be among the men and women we consider heroes.
But where is that line drawn? We celebrate Filipino heroes because of what they did for our country, but we can’t just pretend they were saints. So no, they shouldn’t get a pass. We need to contextualize their heroism, even if that is uncomfortable at times. And with that in mind…
When we need a hero, we can’t be beggars. This is exactly why in times of crisis in Japan, the Yakuza tend to be one of the first in line to help out. Nobody excuses them. They are still known criminals. But their help was still recognized. If we can recognize the “good” things even of the worst among us (Have you heard the many “positive” traits Hitler has? If you didn’t know who he was and what he was most infamous for, you might even think he’s a pretty solid chap!), then surely, we can also recognize the good that those we actively recognize as heroes do.
Recognizing heroism does not eradicate their failings. And furthermore…
Personally, I can still listen to Michael Jackson’s music. I have no strong opinions about his guilt over the allegations that resurfaced after his death, but ultimately, listening to his music doesn’t benefit him.
But listening to R. Kelly’s music does benefit R. Kelly, which is why I simply don’t. It’s in drawing this line that I can easily separate the art from the artist, or in Luna’s case, the hero from the monster. Yes, they are the same person, but recognizing his good part has zero benefit to him because he’s no longer alive. And now that we can look at what he has accomplished while putting his atrocities into its proper context…
Heroism is a rarity not because it takes extraordinary people to do extraordinary things. It’s rare because it takes ordinary people doing extraordinary things in spite of their failings. Nobody is born to be a hero. We simply do or fail to do it when our moment comes, and often, this does not change the core of who we are as a person.
Case in point: Oskar Schindler may have saved countless Jews during World War II, but he was far from perfect. In fact, he was so down on his luck after the war, that he mostly lived off of the kindness of the same Jews that he helped rescue from the Holocaust, until the end of his life. He had a drinking problem, cheated on his wife, but he became a hero in spite of these things.
That’s actually a good question. Jose Rizal was a known womanizer. Andres Bonifacio probably fits the bill, especially if we are willing to excuse acts committed during wartime. But maybe that’s what accountability is about – creating a new breed of hero.
Look. This culture of accountability isn’t quite like the purity Olympics we used to have with previous moral outrage movements in the past. Nobody demanding for accountability thinks they have zero faults to be held accountable for. If anything, a lot of them have been held accountable and that’s exactly why they are calling for it — as a matter of fairness, not as a matter of moral ascendancy. And in being held accountable, we choose to be better. It’s the kind of redemption story heroes often have to be put into dire situations to go through, being given to us as a matter of course.
You can argue that’s not right. But that’s the point. It’s a reasonable and arguable position either way, as opposed to blind hero worship.
We need to talk about this because historical revisionism happens right before our very eyes when we fail to contextualize. For the longest time, the narrative of misinformation has been all about painting our heroes, you know, the real ones by focusing on their mistakes and imperfections, and using that as an excuse and as a whataboutism when compared to the people in our country who decidedly were not heroes. And that’s because we were mistaken in believing that heroes should be saints, and once that is dispelled, suddenly, we can now question if they are the hero, and if that is questionable, does that mean the enemy is now the hero?
On the one hand, we should have just completely made these denizens persona non grata forever the way Germany has made it clear they will no longer tolerate Nazism. On the other hand, the alternative to Nazism is not perfection, and to blindly crusade for it as perfection is to open up people to be radicalized once they realize that it isn’t.
TL;DR – we need more nuance right now. Black-and-white stories are now backfiring on us big time.
Consider Emilio Aguinaldo. For the longest time, we just considered him a hero, but as time goes by, we’ve definitely re-evaluated that. To date, if we held a vote, it’s not unlikely that the Filipino people wouldn’t consider him a hero.
So what does it mean to be a hero, then? What makes or unmakes a hero, knowing that every single one of us is imperfect in some way? Where is this line drawn?
Well. This list wasn’t “8 answers to 8 questions…” so we couldn’t really answer that question right now. But it’s important to think about and that’s why dialogue is important today. Because never talking about it means never arriving at the right answer. Ever.
The answer to that is up to each and every one of us. But what we should all see is Juan Luna’s heroism. His monstrosity. And everything in between. Contextualized and put into perspective. Not because we make excuses for our heroes, but because we want to learn from them and how we could follow their example where it is right, and avoid their lead where it is clearly wrong.
Is it easy? Of course not. But nothing about life or nuance is ever easy.
Will you be seeing Luna’s painting?
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