About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Crying for Suharto?

I opened the New York Times today and saw a baffling picture: a photo of mourners crying outside of Suharto’s house in Jakarta, Indonesia. Why? The guy was a corrupt dictator, who has probably embezzled anywhere between $15 and $35 billion dollars, who was responsible for the killing of anywhere between 500,000 and a million people in the 60’s, and who resigned from power in 1996 only after his police had killed 500 student demonstrators.

Yes, Suharto also did some good, such as it was, like leading Indonesia out of a bad economic turn in the ‘60s, and making it again a member of the United Nations. But by that standard Mussolini was also a pretty good guy: he promoted a lot of public works, including the cleaning up of the malaria swamps south of Rome.

I’m always puzzled by displays of mass emotion when someone famous dies. I saw people crying at Nixon’s funeral, despite the fact that he was arguably the most disgraceful President this country has ever had (George W. beats him handily, but unfortunately it doesn’t look like he’s going to step down before the end of his term). And, of course, we also witness similar scenes for the death of pop icons, from Elvis Presley to Princess D. Yes, Diana was a tragic figure who tried to do some good, but does that explain the obsession with her death and a display of hysterical grief that most people don’t reserve even for close family members? Elvis arguably revolutionized modern music (a good thing or not, depending on your taste), but does that justify the sometimes supernatural aura that surrounds his figure?

The fact that people seem to be in such desperate need of heros, no matter how undeserving the people being idolized may be, should be deeply disturbing. Someone once wrote that a mature nation is one that does not need heroes; if so, no nation in the history of the world has yet reached maturity, though clearly some are at an earlier stage of arrested development than others.

What we do need are role models, inspiring figures. It is important for human beings to see that someone just like us has made some important and worthwhile contribution to the world -- and I’m talking about accomplishments a bit more relevant than winning the Super Bowl or hitting the top of the pop charts. But a hero is something superhuman, it is an almost god-like figure that doesn’t inspire as much as require adoration. And that’s the crucial line to draw: inspiration is a positive force in human affairs, but adoration is diminishing and childish. Role models are complex individuals: they achieve great heights, but they are also human beings with the same recognizable faults we all have. Heros, on the other hand, are the stuff of military propaganda, religions and Hollywood movies: they are make believe and they are an insult to our intelligence.


  1. But where are the role models today? Maybe hero worship is a symptom of the lack.

  2. But where are the role models today?

    Not on the television screen. They're usually our peers, people we know in person, not over-hyped celebrities.

    Massimo, you make an interesting observation, but without a hypothesis it won't sway anyone in any direction :)

  3. On this subject we certainly agree. I have never understood the public's facination with personality cults. There are a few famous people whom I would enjoy meeting but if I saw them on the street I would not rush over to paw at them or grab a used napkin off their table. What is it within some people that makes them behave that way? Is it good that I don't have it, or am I missing some essential human attribute?

  4. I was astonished when some people argued that Mike Tyson should not go to jail for rape because he was a hero to so many young people. Uh, do you think a better hero might be in order?

  5. As for mourning dictators, tyrants, and bad presidents, there are always significant factions of people in society who wholeheartedly supported what these people did.

    Then there seems to be a knee-jerk tendency to name people heros if they die in our over sea military operations. And naming people heros if they are star athletes, and then people are overly dissapointed when their behaviour is less than pefect.

  6. A recent paper on FEBS shows that both romantic and maternal love "both deactivate a common set of (brain) regions associated with negative emotions, social judgment and ‘mentalizing’ that is, the assessment of other people’s intentions and emotions".

    i.e. you become irrational.

    I guess the same thing would happen with these 'idols' or 'cult figures'. At least that's a hypothesis.

  7. Thanks for writing about something that I've long wondered about. Having never been drawn to any kind of "hero" worship I could never figure out why it was such a big deal to others. Still don't understand it, but glad to see I'm not alone in my ponderings.

  8. Look who's the hero of a good half of the italian population...

  9. Well, if it's any consolation, I'm sure a lot of other people brought out the bad stuff this guy did, even (or especially?) people in his own country. That's one problem for the famous, they hear good and bad about them when they die (ridiculous, but you know what I mean).

    Why do we have this need to create iconic people, who are really not people like us but demi-gods who have surpassed in their existence what we have done? We want to make objects of belief out of them and wash away their imperfections. So we put them on Mt. Rushmore and teach children that they are flawless heroes. Or we make pilgimages to honor them in their shrines, such as Graceland.

  10. Isn't hero worship an expression of pure animal behavior? We submit to the alpha male/female and the alpha makes us safe. The alpha dies; we are afraid. We cry.
    Excellent, rational behavior for a chimpanzee in the wild.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.