By SANTOSH DESAI
Do people revered as heroes in any culture have a moral responsibility to speak up for larger issues and take strong political stance?
The question has come to the forefront in the wake of the passing of one such legend, whose courage outside the ring made him an icon twice over.
Muhammad Ali’s stand on issues of race and against the Vietnam War was supremely courageous and his willingness to pay the price for his beliefs was quite remarkable.
In a recent article in the Indian Express, Sandeep Dwivedi, compared Ali’s courage to the silence displayed by most Indian heroes, with a particular emphasis on Sachin Tendulkar’s absence in most debates of the day, in spite of being a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha.
It was a thoughtfully presented argument, and received wide circulation in social media, having evidently struck a chord with many.
In an article in the Hindustan Times, Dipankar Gupta critiqued—albeit with obvious affection—Ali’s own record in his later life on contentious issues of the day, arguing that he shied away from taking the kind of positions he had earlier, thereby not living up to his own heroic standards.
With great power comes great responsibility
Is it fair to evaluate our heroes so stringently against such expectations? Should our heroes be made to carry this burden of our expectations that they represent our views using the platform that they have earned through their achievements?
One could argue that just as they use their fame to promote products and services for a price, they need to serve as unpaid brand ambassadors for the issues of the day as part repayment for the extraordinary return that they get on their abilities and achievements.
Many celebrities use their fame for social causes, but the argument here is that they be politically active too, particularly in promoting a brand of idealism that is comfortable with taking difficult and unpopular positions.
This is a difficult argument to accept, for it robs the individual of the freedom to his own opinion or lack of it. It is the right of all of us to be concerned with our self-interest, and being a sporting hero does not take away that right.
Besides, it is everyone’s right not to be political or not to be concerned about larger issues, particularly those outside their area of expertise.
Also, there is an implicit expectation that celebrities use their voices to support causes that are held dear by the critic. What if Ali had taken anti-Semitic or misogynistic positions?
Would his “courage” in saying things that are “unpopular” be celebrated as much? Anupam Kher does not get many brownie points for his courage in speaking about contentious issues, simply because he takes positions that are unpopular with liberal critics.
What is the role of a hero?
Like slightly unhinged fans, we seem to place a great burden on our heroes and implicitly seek to exercise total ownership over their actions.
We expect a hero to be heroic in all ways, and to be so all through his or her life. We expect them to speak for us, and this expectation turns quickly into a demand which, in turn, becomes a benchmark against the person who is being evaluated, often harshly.
In most cases, people get to their positions because of an entirely unrelated skill, one that is, in most cases of no practical use to society—the ability to don different personas on screen or hurl a ball at great speed or to hit the said ball out of the park with even greater speed for that matter.
Like in any group of people, some would have an interest in the issues of the day while many may not. We anoint heroes for our selfish reasons—there is no contract that our icons sign with us that signals their consent to whatever uses we may choose to put them to.
There is a need we feel today to act as editors of the world and pronounce judgement on events as they unfold. Every death, every anniversary, every significant statement by a leader invites comments from us as we certify events with our own mark of approval or disdain.
The world exists for us to consume and comment upon. As suddenly active and vocal consumers of our icons, we are no longer shy about our expectations from them. We give a lot to people we idolise and then worry that we have given too much.
We then retract some of our effusiveness, but when we do so, we add a resentfully high rate of interest on our principal. We also demand that the person we shower attention and admiration on, pay us back by echoing our ideas even if they are unpopular.
To be or not to be a hero
Just as we have the right to be disappointed with our heroes, it is their right to be human—and that often means being ordinary, selfish, fearful or petty.
While it is important that their iconic status give them not the slightest sense of immunity when they break the law, their everyday flaws need greater acceptance. Heroes are rare and heroism is fragile—few will stand up to relentless and comprehensive scrutiny.
Heroism is an abstract idea, an exaltation of a spirit that needs to rest in the realms of poetry, not mill around in the streets of prose.
In a literal sense, there is nothing particularly heroic about beating another human being half dead by design or fluently stroking a leather ball with a bat.
The heroism of Ali and Sachin is a metaphor and needs to be understood as such. In Ali’s case, his heroism spilled over into real life because of who he was and the kind of times he was living in, but his extraordinary courage is by no means the standard we can use to judge other heroes by.
By reading the heroism of our stars literally, and asking them to act as ambassadors of our grievances, we potentially render them ordinary. We have invented the heroism of our heroes; the burden of our illusions about them must also be ours.
Santosh Desai is the managing director and CEO of Futurebrands India Ltd. A thought leader in understanding the relationship between culture and brands and the consumer as a product of his or her cultural context, he is also the author of “City City Bang Bang,” a weekly column in The Times of India.
Article first appeared in The Times of India. For more Be A Leader articles, click here.