A few months ago I was chatting with a couple people about the current Pope, Francis. While I am Christian, I am by no means Catholic, so the Pope is just a powerful man in a funny costume to me. Nevertheless, I found myself agreeing with one of my conversation partners (also not Catholic) about how much good Francis seems to be doing, particularly regarding his anti-death penalty stance. At this point the third guy jumped in and asserted in no uncertain terms that the Pope was not to be lauded in any way due to his alleged role in covering up child abuse within the Church. Now, I had and still have no idea whether or not these allegations are true, but this guy had raised an interesting point:
Should we look up to or revere people who have done great, positive things in the world, even if they have also been responsible for, or supported in some way, some terrible things?
I tried to probe the question with this guy, but he seemed totally uninterested in any meaningful engagement, so I was left to ponder it on my own until my interest fizzled and I forgot about it, and I haven’t thought about again until today.
I still have no answer, and I still don’t know what to make of Kochiyama or Google’s decision to honor her. The same questions still frustrate me. Is it truly possible to celebrate the great deeds of a person while condemning the terrible things they have done? In celebrating the individual, don’t you always inadvertently end up promoting the bad, unless you take the time to disavow every one of their misdeeds every time you praise them? Today I’ve seen a flood of people lauding Kochiyama as a great woman and a hero, perfectly content to ignore the fact that she called Bin Laden a hero after the September 11[SUP]th[/SUP] attacks, and repeatedly fought to free murderers and attempted murderers, considering them heroes as well. Surely ignoring these things is not the solution?
But at the same time she also fought for so much good. Surely I can’t ignore this fact and call her a monster. People are never that simple. So then do we honor her? Is there a line somewhere that says “past this point, a person is no longer to be revered”? If so, where is the line? MLK is known to have had an affair. Is he disqualified as well?
History is a goldmine of examples for this topic. A classic is Genghis Khan. One of the most evil men in recorded history, he also brought peace, prosperity, cultural exchange, and technological progress to millions of people (with the one minor caveat that they don't resist him). It has even been suggested his deeds paved the way for the modern world. What do we make of him? What do we say of him, or any of the other thousands of prominent historical figures who did great things but also some pretty awful things? One of the tenets of the modern field of history is that we should withhold our judgment. Be hospitable and meet these figures in their own time and place. And we should be, but when it comes to, say, choosing who to honor on the front page of Google, it isn’t much help.
Of course, the easy way out would be to go post-modern and say, “Why even try to label people in this way? It’s so simplistic and small-minded.” Well sure, but it’s also practical. The fact of the matter is we look up to, learn from, and are influenced by other human beings. It is entirely impractical to always point to deeds and events rather than people. We have heroes. It’s as simple as that. Heroes inspire people, which leads to change. So again, how do we decide who to look up to? It seems logical that there would be some sort of disqualification line, but where? Obviously everyone can draw their own lines, but that doesn’t really solve much either. What would Google do, then? Just not honor anyone? Quit the whole thing altogether? I personally think it would be rather sad to have no heroes honored in the public sphere, and probably destructive.
So Kochiyama. I still don’t know what to think. Knowing what she has said about Bin Laden, would I be able to look into the eyes of one of the three-thousand innocent families who lost fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons to that man, and call her a hero? I don’t think I could. How would it be any different to say it in other company then, or even just to think it in private? Sure, no one might get hurt, but what does that change other than someone’s emotional state, and only temporarily at that?
Well, that’s about all I have to say I guess. I still feel incredibly frustrated about the whole thing, but it helps to let it out at the very least. Google’s decision doesn’t sit right with me, but when I try to reason out why, I end up lost in that awkward philosophical fog where everything just looks grey.