Look at any “great” figure of recent or past history, and you will find a moral minefield. Appreciating the moral flaws in people we idolise is not [...] and can be hard to reconcile with their virtues.
Let’s get something straight from the start. I really dislike Germaine Greer. I recall reading The Female Eunuch, and finding it fascinating, but the impact and spectacular wit of that book doesn’t erase the fact the fact that Greer is a transphobic idiot whose treatment of transgender people is basically hate speech. I wrote a piece for Varsity on that topic about a year ago, and got hounded off Twitter. Amidst the flurry of death and rape threats, I found myself wondering how Greer’s defenders could be so angry at me for really pointing out a fact; Greer has made a series of statements about trans people which are hateful, vile, and deny their legitimacy to live. Does that mean we should not admire certain elements of her work? Not necessarily. But that kind of nuance seemed to be lost on the person who threw dog shit at my house.
Look at any “great” figure of recent or past history, and you will find a moral minefield. Gandhi, for instance, was a hideously misogynistic individual, who once cut off the hair of two of his female followers to prevent them tempting men, an incident he boasted of later in life. Churchill famously talked about his hatred for Indians, and evidence suggests he shared Hitler’s view of a global conspiracy of Jews. Does this change the fact that Gandhi was a great peace activist, or that Churchill’s leadership contributed to British resolve during WWII? No, but it means we have to face the sober truth that they, and many others, had vile aspects to their character, which cannot be simply ignored. When Orwell wrote that “saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent,” he might as well have written in a vacuum.
The Left is no less guilty of hero worshipping dubious figures, and I am no less guilty of this than any other. As I write this, I can see a Lenin flag hanging from the back of my bedroom. Lenin was clearly one of the greatest revolutionary figures of the 20th century, a man who helped lead the first Communist revolution and whose work on transitional phases between capitalism and communism are masterfully insightful. He also founded the Cheka, the brutal secret police who presided over Gulags, the secret arrest and murder of anti-revolutionary elements, and were responsible for the deaths of 12,000 people. Ernesto Guevara is another problematic figure – a beautiful writer and great intellectual, his profession that revolution is motivated by love sits ill at ease with his presiding over dozens of executions without trial. Of course, the heroes of the Right tend to have equally bloody hands (Pinochet, anyone?), but the problem for the Left is that we’re trying to make a moral case for revolution as a step towards the advancement of humanity, and a bit of murdering tends to undermine that argument.
Such uncritical hero worship can be deeply problematic, and not simply in an abstract sense. In 2013, the Socialist Workers Party was plunged into crisis, after a teenage activist brought a rape allegation against “Comrade Delta,” a member of the party leadership. Instead of handling the matter sensitively, or remotely appropriately, the SWP essentially went on a campaign of character assassination against the girl, and claimed, astonishingly, that “no rape had occurred.” The full transcript of various SWP meetings on this incident can be found online, and they make for depressing reading. Comrade Delta was heroised as a great radical, a committed activist and by virtue of that, and that alone, incapable of sexual abuse. The mind boggles. Laurie Penny, writing for The New Statesman, captures this point well when she writes: “It is precisely to do with the idea that, by virtue of being progressive, by virtue of fighting for equality and social justice, by virtue of, well, virtue, we are somehow above being held personally accountable when it comes to issues of race, gender and sexual violence.”
Appreciating the moral flaws in people we idolise is not a pleasant process, and can be hard to reconcile with their virtues. I have a tattoo on my right wrist, “Do I Dare/Disturb the Universe?” – a line from The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, by T.S. Eliot, one of the finest writers in the English language…and also a misogynist and anti-semite. Trying to appreciate the beauty of Eliot’s poetry when confronted with the horrendous nature of his views is not an easy task. But sadly, we don’t live in a world of black and white. And a sad part of growing up is appreciating that ultimately, we’re all a bit shit. Your dad stole all his jokes from UniLad, your mum has a soft spot for Nigel Farage, your best friend from school now works for Wonga.com and loves it, all your favourite bands don’t pay tax and there really are no clean heroes. Writing on patriarchy, the wonderful Bell Hooks captured this well when she wrote: “Men do oppress women. People are hurt by rigid sexist role patterns. These two realities coexist.” Appreciating these co-existing realities in our heroes is not easy, or fun, but it must be done – the consequences of uncritical hero worship are far, far worse.