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Unmasked heroes

Mia Lillis | Friday, September 20, 2013

When I was in middle school, I had a few fights with friends who betrayed my trust. Whenever I went to my mother with such concerns, her advice was always the same: “Mia, someday you will learn that you can only trust God. Everyone else will disappoint you.” While this was less than helpful advice for a ten-year-old girl who just wanted friends she could trust, my mother’s words resonate with me today, especially in the context of unmasked heroes.
There have been countless heroes unmasked in our time. For those of us gutsy enough to forgive Anthony Weiner after his twitter fiasco two years ago, Carlos Danger was a slap in the face. Others who held Aaron Hernandez on a pedestal have floundered in the wake of his murder accusations. The unmasked hero is by no means a phenomenon constricted to the 21st century. Even to this day, people are devastated to discover that Mahatma Gandhi’s sexual behavior was appalling, or that Martin Luther King, Jr. had a chronic problem with extramarital affairs.
Of course, public figures are not the only unmasked heroes. We all admire people in our everyday lives, whether they are peers, figures of authority, or parents, and the proximity of such heroes makes recovery from their unmasking that much more difficult. What do we do when a peer or figure of authority that we emulated reveals deep-seated, violent racism or is accused of a horrific crime?
We may instinctively enter into a state of shock or denial. It is easier to blindly believe that someone you admire is without fault, for this state of denial circumvents any obligation to reexamine where your faith lies. But eventually, we are faced with insurmountable evidence that someone we have considered a mentor or role model has committed an egregious offense, and we are forced to accept reality.
Sometimes, we can forgive our unmasked heroes. For example, when they are found guilty of using performance-enhancing drugs, we can perhaps forgive them for succumbing to the pressures of their environment. But sometimes, the transgressions of our heroes are inexcusable, and we must cease to call them heroes. For example, when they are found guilty of violent, racist crimes or sexual assault, of violating another human being to such an awful degree, it is not our place to so readily grant forgiveness. Furthermore, continuing to publicly laud such people rubs salt into the wounds of their subsequently silenced victims.
However, this is not to dismiss the benefit we may receive from unmasked heroes. Gandhi may have committed misdeeds of domestic violence and mistreatment of women, but his other actions also led to his country’s freedom. Aaron Hernandez may have been involved with several murders, but his other actions inspired thousands of individuals across the country to push themselves to new athletic heights. It is inappropriate and insensitive to continue praising such individuals, but this does not negate the positive impact that these individuals’ other actions have had on our lives.

Mia Lillis is a senior living in Cavanaugh Hall. She can be reached at mlillis@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.