Bards, Kings and Heroes
Monday, April 12, 2010
In this world, there are a variety of people who live in the public view. You have a variety of public figures who have been elevated to that status as the result of their efforts in their personal lives, their choice of profession, and any other number of reasons.
For the sake of argument I'm going to say that people in the public eye exist somewhere on an axis that is polarized by their role and attitude towards the public itself. On one side, you have people who have been made popular and publicly recognized due to their contributions to society, or they've been elected/chosen by their peers to represent them as a paragon of their people. These are elected officials, military leaders, etc. For simplicity (and keeping with my obsession with feudal-era terminology), let's call these people Kings. On the other end of the spectrum are people who have been elevated to public status due to their role as entertainers, or providers of some form of entertainment. These are musicians, actors, writers and the like. Again conforming with my previous theme, lets call these people Bards.
This is a greatly simplified view, but I think it describes the level of standards to which we hold these public figures. If we discover that Tom Cruise --a man who has given us countless hours of quotable one-liners delivered with a inimitable persona-- personally believes himself to possess super powers and use them to free his people from an ancient alien invasion, we for the most part shrug our shoulders and laugh. If we discover that Stephen King snorted a mountain of cocaine in order to create his masterpieces of horror and fear, we just want to strike him on the shoulder and say "Oh Steve." But if we find out that our president has done his job while having a job done to him, or a senator who has spent hundreds of hours in speeches decrying the horrors of infidelity has been accused of the very same, they are immediately called to task for their indiscretions. Maybe it's not a fair standard, but to be honest, I think it's sensible.
I did not elect Britney Spears to be a pop icon, so I'm not personally offended if it turns out that she has the emotional depth of a shot glass. My taxes don't pay the wages of Brad Pitt, so I could care less if he's decided to attach himself to an accused vampire (who may or may not drink blood but definitely kidnaps children from all over the world). Looking at this perspective in a historical and cultural basis, we see that the Bards of old were often given a kind of immunity from the laws of man. This was both a formal recognition (all traveling performers were essentially given the parley of peace to warring nations) and an informal "honor among thieves" distinction (any number of stories in which traveling poets, writers, and bards were allowed to walk through highwaymen checkpoints unimpeded).
The interesting side-effect of this duality, however, is that there are people who exist somewhere inside the spectrum that we've created. In this case, I think a great example is those who are paid to entertain us, but have been chosen to do so due to their status as representatives of the best of all of us. Inside of this spectrum we have a lot of people, but in this example, in these times, i think the best explanation is that of the athlete. We have Olympic Athletes, who are somewhere towards the King level due to the fact they're not usually a professional athlete during the rest of the year. These people are held to a very high standard as they represent our nation in a world stage against other athletes that represent their nation. On a slightly more private example of the same concept, we have athletes who are paid through a variety of personal and commercial licenses, sometimes by those who view them, and sometimes by the products that those viewers buy.
These are our Heroes. In the olden days, they belonged to us, and they ruled us. Achilles was given the status of a king among men for his prowess in battle, despite the fact he had no actual ruling power. Spartacus belonged to the people and was forced to kill other heroes for the sake of the public's entertainment.
So to me, this is very interesting in recent news. Stories of various athletes using drugs, cheating, and violating the rules of their sports is an important distinction. They are essentially breaking the agreed upon rules that have risen them to the rank of heroes in the public consciousness. If the heroes cannot agree upon those rulesets, why would there be a reason to revere these people? This, I understand.
But when Tiger Woods is found guilty of a wide and complex series of extra-marital affairs, the public view of him as both an individual and as a hero are greatly affected. Is it because we have held him to a higher standard than we hold ourselves? Is it because we secretly wish we could engage in the same kind of behavior, but that opportunity has never arisen for us? The assaults that have gone on from both ends of the argument have pointed directly at the reputation of the sport being at stake: that this damages the sport, or that others in the sport have been made to sacrifice because of it.
If that is the case, then no sport can or will survive the future. The failure of man will not bear the existence of any standard, let alone standards that are based on the way of life of the people who are not elevated to that status.
I don't have to live by the same laws as Tiger Woods, because no one notices when I do things -- no ones cares. But even if they did, they would not expect me to perform on a consistent and serious basis at any athletic event. Should we be forced to hold every person up to a consistent standard? If you're not incredibly great at your job, you should be instantly replaced? If you're not able to conduct your personal and professional life in a manner that is up to the standards of the highest expectations of mankind, should those things be taken from you?
All of this pontification aside, I think it comes down to the individual and how they view their heroes. When I was young, I discovered that one of my personal heroes was not perfect: he was a human being. He had a variety of personal and professional issues of which I was not aware, and I found myself losing respect for him. He used drugs, and he spoke ill of a variety of people.
Then, years later, I realized that he had never ranted and railed against the dangerous of drug use, and the personal problems he had were the exact same as the ones I did. He had never really violated any of my expectations of him, even if they would have been unrealistic or unfair.
It was then that I realized the best types of heroes to follow are the ones in whom we see ourselves. I have a hard time saying that supernatural beings from myth and lore are the paragons of my psychology and ethics (even though I think Spider-man was my first role model). As a child, the concept of trying to be like Jesus seemed impossible, and therefore Christianity seemed masochistic to me. When I read the story of Guinevere's betrayal of Arthur with Lancelot, I was deeply offended and assumed that the concept of it was criminal and fabricated by revisionists who wanted to smear the good name of the ideals of Camelot. The birth of Mordred from the incest of Arthur and Morgana was to me criminal. Now, I think the idea of these stories make those character much more interesting, as I could see not only my ideals but my weaknesses in them. I stopped holding them to a higher standard than myself, and realized that modeling my life after them would be a mistake, but learning from both their victories and failures would be the best experiences and education I would ever receive.
So let's say for just a moment that it's okay to hold Heroes to higher standards than ourselves... but maybe we should remember that if they were perfect, we'd have absolutely no reason to idealize, emulate, and love them.