I saw Russell Brand’s stand up show Messiah Complex last night.
He was talking about heroes. And caricatures.
Using the examples of Mahatma Gandhi, Che Guevara, Malcolm X and Jesus, he showed that although they are heroes, they weren’t perfect.
For example, Gandhi married his wife when she was 13. Glossing over that initial point, whenever he got imprisoned for a protest, as a devoted wife, she would always come and stay with him in prison. Once, while staying with him, she got ill and was offered the western medicine she needed to make her better. But Gandhi said “no” as they believed in Ayurvedic “medicine”. She died soon afterwards. It so happened that not long after Gandhi fell prey to the same illness. When he was offered the same medicines you can guess what he did…
But then these heroes had already been appropriated by causes, each “hero” we know, being a caricature of the real person behind the icon.
To continue showing the side we don’t like to see: Guevara was a rather violent individual who was known to enjoy personally shooting his adversaries dead. He also enjoyed killing dogs!
Similarly Mother Teresa, arguably the epitome of the modern-day saint, is painted as a loving, caring and selfless individual, and in many ways she was. However, she was also exceptionally cruel, a liar and a thief. She did the same as Gandhi, keeping her Calcutta hospice primitive and run down, while flying to a clinic in California when she herself got ill. Rather than upgrading her clinic in Calcutta, she spend millions from donations on building convents for her own, eponymous order, going against the promises she made to her donors. Hitchens, who wrote a book about her, said :“She was a friend of poverty. She said that suffering was a gift from God. She spent her life opposing the only known cure for poverty, which is the empowerment of women and the emancipation of them from a livestock version of compulsory reproduction.”
Even the purportedly meek and gentle Jesus was the one who first introduced the idea of torturing non-believers by being burnt alive, for ever.
The point is, that the people behind the icons were not perfect. They were just people like anyone else. They did good things and bad things. Some did very bad things. We just choose to focus on the good things.
Daniel Kahneman defines this bias in his excellent book Thinking Fast And Slow: “The tendency to like (or dislike) everything about a person – including things you have not observed”.
He gives this example:
“You meet a woman named Joan at a party and find her personable and easy to talk to. Now her name comes up as someone who could be asked to contribute to a charity. What do you know about Joans generosity? The correct answer is that you know virtually nothing, because there is little reason to believe that people who are agreeable in social situations are also generous contributors to charity. But you like Joan and you will retrieve the feeling of liking her when you think of her. You also like generosity and generous people. By association, you are now predisposed to believe that Joan is generous. Real evidence of generosity is missing in the story of Joan and the gap is filled by a guess that fits one’s emotional response to her.”
He recounts another good example of the effect:
“Solomon Asch presented descriptions of two people and asked for comments on their personality. What do you think of Alan and Ben?
Alan: intelligent – industrious – impulsive – critical – stubborn – envious
Ben: envious – stubborn – critical – impulsive – industrious – intelligent
If you are like most of us, you viewed Alan much more favourably than Ben. The initial traits in the list change the very meaning of the traits that appear later. The stubbornness of an intelligent person is seen as likely to be justified and may actually evoke respect, but intelligence in an envious and stubborn person makes him more dangerous.”
It’s something I’ve become aware of in myself in the past. My judgements of a persons opinion used to be overly affected by their style, their voice, their attractiveness and their body language, rather than on the value of their opinion. It’s a subtle and subconscious version of the Ad Hominem fallacy. I still do this of course – we all do – but much less than I used to. I have been trying to judge the opinions and actions of people more objectively, outside the context of their personalities and style (while at the same time trying to empathise, so I can understand their thoughts within that same context).
When I first saw Russell Brand on TV I thought he was a self-obsessed idiot. I couldn’t stand his style, and found his humour annoying, so gave him no credence. But then I started to listen to what he had to say on celebrity and on revolution and gained new respect for him.
A prime example of falling prey to the Halo Effect.
To overcome this, Kahneman says you need to realise how little information you have, and obtain separate, independent judgements on an issue before coming to any conclusions.
The Halo Effect works with negatives too, where it’s sometimes called the Devil Effect: “Some leaders can become so demonised that it’s impossible to assess their achievements and failures in a balanced way“.
Back to Brand’s show. He showed a picture of Hitler as a young child, pointing out his humanity, that he was a person, just like all of us. Bravo for making that point – not many people are brave enough to point out this vitally important aspect, especially when talking about the biggest hate figure in our culture. Dehumanising someone as evil is counter productive.
There’s clearly projection going on here – we often see the worst aspects of ourselves in other people, and get rather upset by them.
Brand stated that “a hero is a symbolic representation of qualities we all want”. And so it can become more than just a caricature, it can be a projection from us.
This was backed up this morning with the quote Jacob Zuma made when describing Nelson Mandela: “We saw in him what we seek in ourselves“.
(Again, Mandela wasn’t perfect – he cheated on his first wife. He argued that the ANC should use violence, and was responsible for torturing and killing hundreds of people. He even held some segregationist views himself, believing that only blacks should be involved in the fight for political self-determination.)
Mark Twain, that master of pithy quotes, said “Unconsciously we all have a standard by which we measure other men, and if we examine closely we find that this standard is a very simple one, and is this: we admire them, we envy them, for great qualities we ourselves lack. Hero worship consists in just that. Our heroes are men who do things which we recognize, with regret, and sometimes with a secret shame, that we cannot do. We find not much in ourselves to admire, we are always privately wanting to be like somebody else. If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes”.