Can We Still Have Our Heroes?

Originally Published January 20, 2014

On Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I am stepping out of the third person to talk about a trend I see that is disturbing me, has always disturbed me. It’s not a new trend, but it is gaining speed recently.

The trend is to dismiss people’s heroes and their good work on the basis that they are human beings, and therefore fallible and made mistakes in their lives – and that that one mistake (or even many) outweighed the good they did.

I first noticed this trend when I was younger, but I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention at first. It really first came to my attention when Mother Theresa died in 1997, and all of the sudden, detractors came flying out of the woodwork, declaiming all the good she had done in India because of something she may or may not have done during World War II. It was as if, to those people, every giving and kind thing she’d done was totally wiped out.

At the same time, it was happening closer to me. I was attending Iowa State University. Two years earlier, the refurbishment of the former Agricultural Hall was finished, and the new name given to it- Catt Hall, for Carrie Chapman Catt, Iowa State’s first female graduate and world renown women’s right’s advocate. The controversy was grand and went on and on and on. For years! You see, even with all the good Catt had done, at some point her family had owned slaves. To many people, that one aspect negated everything she’d done to promote women’s rights and she was- as one person put it – not worthy of any honors at all. It was the first time I spoke up about this line of thought. The university was not moved by all the declamation; Catt Hall is still there; there is now even a Catt Center for Women and Politics within that building.

Recently, on Nelson Mandela’s death, I was told by several people that he should not be considered a hero, because he was an insurrectionist and a revolutionary and people died because of his orders and/or direct actions. Yes he was. So was George Washington and all the signers of the Declaration of Independence. So was Abraham Lincoln. In each case, people died as a direct result of their actions. And yet, they are our nation’s heroes, because they freed us from tyranny and slavery. Mandela did the same for his people.

This week alone, a friend who lives in West Virginia, where chemical spills have tainted the water, expressed delight that Erin Brockovich had arrived and was digging into the events and facts around this chemical spill. As soon as she said that, someone was there to decry Brockovich’s work, citing a false news story from a satire site as the reason that anything she does should be considered suspect. And when this was pointed out, she apologized, but the damage was already done. Another person that some view as a hero on the block because she may have been fallible once.

In the same discussion, someone else said “well, she’s not a lawyer.” with a dismissive emoticon. Which leads me to the second part of my rant here. When did it become that if you were not X, you could not do Y? If you’re not a licensed teacher, you cannot teach anyone anything? If you’re not a lawyer, you cannot be an advocate for the people?

There are teenagers inventing things, making changes in our world for the better – and yet not a single one of them is a doctor, or a scientist with years of study behind them, or anything that society gives credence to because they lack the years of education and certificates we assume means people know what they are doing. Instead, they are kids with ideas that no one told they couldn’t do it because they were not a a “Professional”.

Here’s some examples from the past two years:

Jake Andraka, who invented an early cancer detection method – in high school, at age 15.

Marian Betchel, who invented a land mine detection unit – in high school, at age 17.

Braeden Benedict, who invented a football helmet that can detect when it is hit with enough force to potentially cause a concussion, that releases an ink infusion into the outside of the helmet that can be seen from the sidelines, letting coaches know when a student needs immediate medical attention – in high school, at age 15.

Fabian Fernandez-Han has invented a bicycle that can suck up questionable water and purify it, making it usable. The bike can produce 20 gallons of drinkable water in an hour – homeschooled, at age 14.

These are just a few of the children who managed to create inventions that while they may not change the whole world, they can change life for many people. All because no one told them they could not do it, they were not “professionals”.

These kids are heroes as well, no matter what else they may do in their lives.

So today, on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I would like to follow along with his dreams of equality and fair treatment for all, and ask that we stop trying to discredit people because they turned out to be human beings with faults, and we stop trying to limit people from becoming their potential selves, from doing great things, all because they aren’t there yet.

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