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Take care when choosing if your hero is sinner or saint

Publication Date : 10-01-2014


Compare the following two late public figures and try to determine which one was the better man: The first one had a history of adultery and constant absence from his family. One of his estranged sons later died from AIDS. His ex-wife, partly destroyed by his career, was known to have led a gang of thugs that would kidnap and terrorize even her supposed comrades. Even before his death, his family was already arguing over his inheritance.

The other is almost a text-book dream-catching hero story. When he was in a hospital recovering from wounds he received while fighting for his nation, he decided to help his motherland in a field he had no extraordinary specialties in. But with his dedication and help from his wife, he persevered against all odds and excelled in his chosen field. In fact, he became arguably the most famous person in that field and was greatly honored by his nation. Even though he received next to no monetary rewards for his achievements, he didn't seem to care. He led a relatively simple life till the day he died.

If the comparison seems to be straightforward, with the odds strongly favoring the second person, consider this: the first person was Nelson Mandela and the second one Mikhail Kalashnikov. One was celebrated as a human rights hero and one of the greatest political figures in the 20th century. The other was remembered as the inventor of AK-47, one of the most common assault rifles in the world, which has gained notoriety for being the iconic weapon for dictators, terrorists and criminals.

With their identities revealed, the trend seems to suddenly reverse. The argument is apparent: Mandela should be the better man despite his family problems, some of which were the result of his sacrifices for his cause and his people. No matter how dedicated his was, Kalashnikov created a mass-killing weapon.

But is it really that simple? Can one say unequivocally that Mandela is a better person than Kalashnikov? That the hurt Mandela brought to some can be cancelled out or discounted because of his achievements? That Kalashnikov's dedication and love for his nation (he decided to design weapons to help the Soviet Union defend itself against the more powerful Germany) seemed less admirable because of how his invention is used by others?

One person who would not agree with such assessment would be Mandela himself. In the book “Conversation with Myself,” Mandela talked of his worries of being regarded as a saint. “I never was one, even on the basis of an earthly definition of a saint as a sinner who keeps on trying,” he wrote.

A person's life, even for people as iconic as Mandela and Kalashnikov, is more complicated than the sum of his and her achievements or failures. Mandela dedicated a substantial part of his life to defending against the public's readiness to beatify him. Kalashnikov also spent countless hours explaining that his rifle is “a weapon of defense.”

And if nuance is needed to understand famous world figures, imagine the reserve people should hold in defining a common person. Yet our society seems to be happy to judge a person merely by the snippets of his or her life that are revealed to the world by the gossip-thirsty mass media.

When the dashboard camera film of a doctorate student deliberately blocking an ambulance and the news of the death of the patient inside the vehicle were made public in 2010, the student was quickly caricatured. He wasn't even properly named by the media, which nicknamed him “middle-finger Xiao” (the man is surnamed Xiao and he showed his middle finger when blocking the ambulance). While Xiao's action deserves condemnation, the media failed the public by investing more resources in repeated broadcast of the “middle-finger” clip and to whip up public anger then to understand Xiao's problematic decision or the larger problem of road rage in Taiwan.

When Iruan Ergui Wu, the 18-year-old teenager at the center of a high-profile custody battle a decade ago, recently returned to Taiwan, the mass media opted not to cover the damage done by the custody war and the 10-year separation to Wu's family in Taiwan. They instead focused mostly on Wu's good looks, his apparently exotic Brazilian background and his relationship with the opposite sex.

The media's tendency to caricature real people as one-dimension heroes, villains or victims leads to a society that is reflective and one that can be easily maneuvered and agitated. News reports like that those covering a middle finger-showing bad driver or a TV host kissing a Taiwanese-Brazilian can be fun to watch. But sometimes boredom can be good news for the society in the long run.


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