Confronting the imperfections of our heroes can be challenging, but we must never resort to cancel culture
Reflecting on his observations of human beings, Holocaust survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl stated, “Life in a concentration camp tore open the human soul and exposed its depths. Is it surprising that in those depths we … found only human qualities which in their very nature were a mixture of good and evil?”
These words brought me comfort as I reflected on the life of Martin Luther King Junior, as recounted in King: A Life by Jonathan Eig. King was a great preacher and the perfect man to lead the march toward civil rights in the 1950s and 60s. Yet, he had many struggles as a human being; most notably, he was a womanizer: it is almost undeniable that he cheated on his wife, the extraordinary Coretta Scott King.
Martin Luther King Junior was under constant surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover and his agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. His phone lines were tapped, and his hotel rooms were bugged. One wonders if any of us would emerge without blemish, given the constant monitoring. The monitoring, however, worked in King’s favour because Hoover’s obsession made the FBI reports of King’s extramarital affairs seem less believable.
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I had certainly rejected the scandalous stories. I kept King on a pedestal until I read Eig’s book, and it was hard to finally accept that my hero was a flawed human being. Be it as it may, I respect and admire King too much to “cancel” him, as we are so apt to do in the 21st century when we learn that historical figures did not live up to our current standards of social mores.
I also began to question the entire phenomenon of discrediting, or “cancelling,” prominent figures. Looking at cancel culture objectively tells us a great deal about the person or the group doing the cancelling. King’s infidelity certainly negatively impacted his wife, his children, the other women in his life, and his own conscience, but why was Hoover so obsessed with this aspect of King’s life? What does this tell us about J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI, and the American government?
The truth is, we will never find a perfect human. Leadership expert Don Shapiro points out, “You don’t have to be perfect to be a leader, just have your heart in the right place and do enough things right to make a difference in those you lead.”
Each of us knows that we are not perfect. However, allowing this to stop us from doing good and living to our full potential is one of life’s great tragedies. We all make mistakes, but that does not make us bad. It only becomes a problem when we refuse to improve.
The Apple TV series Ted Lasso is all about embracing our giftedness despite our struggles and imperfections. No matter how much we improve, however, we remain who we are. A discussion of this topic in the program’s final episode concluded with this statement, “Human beings are never going to be perfect …. The best we can do is to keep asking for help and accepting it when you can. And if you keep on doing that, you’ll always be moving towards better.”
Martin Luther King Junior was a flawed human being doing extraordinary work, and we can only speculate as to how he would have evolved had his life not been tragically cut short. His legacy is not one of perfection; it is one of inspiration. We are all a mixture of good and evil. If we choose to constantly move towards better, we will also do an extraordinary amount of good.
Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He is the recipient of an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust.
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