Hero Worship

I could summarize this post pretty well with just this one name: Lance Armstrong. But please allow me to indulge you further. Most of us have our sporting heroes. Many summers ago I was asked to stay put at home for a month due to a health issue and this coincided with the Tour de France. This was the first time I watched the physically grueling cycling tour that had 21 stages each up to 200 km spread across a month. Just completing this would require almost superhuman effort. Lance, the cancer survivor, was pulling away from the others easily and it was natural to idolize him. He could do no wrong! We all know how that ended.

Not all sports careers end in dishonour like this but ups and downs are part of the story. People watching Sachin bat in his last two years yearned for the Sachin of old. Federer hasn’t won a Grand Slam in years now but even in his glorious peak he struggled at the French. Obviously one of the “downs” comes at the end of one’s career unless like Sangakkara one retires at one’s best. But no one is completely infallible and failings are exposed at various stages. In fact, failings show what it takes to reach, perform and stay at that level – years and years of training with extreme physical and mental conditioning combined with a good dose of luck.

Even knowing all this, rational people still expect their sporting heroes to be infallible and are hugely disappointed with their failures. Sports is not the only place where it is common. Vijay Mallya was the toast of the town in the mid-2000s for his flamboyant lifestyle to the same guys who are panning him now. Everyone aspired to live like that! Narendra Modi, Jayalalithaa and Arvind Kejriwal are all recent politico-social examples in India who are the subject of hero worship by some or other group of people.

What is hero worship? The folks at Merriam-Webster define it as “foolish or excessive admiration of someone”. Let’s try and understand this further. Why is “foolish” more or less equated with “excessive” admiration. There is some mathematics at work here – “Regression”. Regression always needs a context: regress (or return) to what? In the mathematical sense, the complete definition is “regression to the mean“.

The mean represents an expected or average or natural state. When something very positive happens you are above the mean and conversely you can go below. The concept of regression says that you need to return toward the mean in any random process such as life. Daniel Kahnemann in his book – Thinking, Fast and Slow – gave an example of pilots who were scored during their training sessions. The pilots who got extremely high scores in one session and were lauded for that almost always performed more poorly in the next session. There was a lot of analysis to see what was going on – were the praises leading to nervousness next time, were they overconfident? But in the end it was down to the concept of regression. Each pilot simply regresses toward their own long term mean score.

What does this have to do with hero worship? Normally when someone gets famous or infamous in the media they are either on a sharp uptrend or downtrend from their mean. Usually the ones on an uptrend are eulogized and turned into heroes. So we observe someone at their very best (well above their mean probably) and turn them into our hero. What Social Media does very well is make this trend viral so that more and more people do this and now you have a critical mass of people who think this person is a hero. People also judge that if the person could do X very well (which is what brought them hero status), they will also do Y very well. We know from sports that this is unlikely but we still believe this when it comes to business, religious or political leaders! When regression happens this excessive admiration looks foolish!

Here are some examples:

  • Lord Ram is praised as the embodiment of ideal human behaviour due to his obedience to his father’s promise and his rescue of his wife. Regression happened when he exiled his pregnant wife. Which woman would accept this today? Note that it is very likely that the Uttara Kanda that details this episode was a later addition to the Ramayana but my point is that the people who worship him consider this Kanda as canonical.
  • Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the unquestioned leader of the BJP and is highly motivated to lead the country. Among the positives we hear how bureaucrats are more accountable and interest groups are kept at arms length to avoid “big corruption”. More pro-activeness in foreign relations and removal of obstacles in infrastructure projects can be seen. Does this mean he is infallible? Nepal getting closer to China due to India’s blockade; promotion of regressive ideas at the Indian Science Congress; rooting for “Make in India” while cutting research funding; and his general silence when it comes to contentious issues involving marginalized sections of society are all signs that he is fallible in some areas.
  • Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal won an election on a platform of ending corruption and focusing on public services. He has delivered in several areas. But his unchallenged majority means he diluted his own Lokpal Bill proposal and expelled alternate voices from his party. Regression at work again.
  • Spiritual leader Mr. Ravi Shankar of Art of Living who is known as a philanthropist talking about how they only “leveled” the Yamuna floodplain and didn’t cut any trees betraying a clear lack of understanding of river habitats. I wrote more about this here. Modi and Kejriwal first permitting and then attending this doesn’t do them any credit either.

What should we read from all of this? All these are examples of people just being people with all their good and bad. Even from each of our personal experiences we know each of us have our own pluses and minuses. But knowing all this does not convince hero worshippers to take a step back! Hero worshippers tend to justify each action of their hero whether good or bad.

Does this somewhat blind worship make any difference to the heroes? A degree of hero worship is necessary to get people to vote you into power especially when a large part of the voting population does not see how good policy can help them. After a while the heroes (for example, Indira Gandhi) start believing in their own infallibility and this results in disaster. Such heroes fail to see the need for surrounding themselves with people who complement their own skills and instead rely on sycophants. The BJP currently praising the great “Modifier” and imposition of President’s Rule without due process in Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand show increasing signs of such behaviour.

People are some times capable of great things but at other times are fallible. Our heroes are also normal people who just got famous during their high point. They can inspire us to do great things as well as wrong things. They can lead a country into war or destroy the economy with wrong policies. When there is mass hero worship we allow ourselves to be led down this path while all along we say this is for the best. Erdogan in Turkey is proving to be a good current example of how a popular leader can transform into an autocrat.

An individual can benefit from good role-models (from Merriam-Webster: “a person whose behavior in a particular role is imitated by others”). We can look at someone and say he is a good role model as a father and I will learn parenting from him. This person might be not so great at their work as a financial advisor and can be criticized for that. We can look at a political leader and say this person builds consensus well and I will learn that from her. But when she enters into a deal with a conflict of interest I can critique her. One need not worry about justifying actions of their role models! A strong person can withstand some criticism and may be even improve themselves.

Having role models allows us to derive inspiration from certain roles or actions of another person while leaving space to critique their other actions. This keeps things realistic and our political or other leaders grounded. It avoids false overconfidence in our leaders in matters they are not strong on and encourages them to augment their own weaknesses by building a team around them. For example, Modi can benefit from better Ministers in the Health and HRD departments.

Even criticizing reasonably good policy is good for the country because it encourages policy makers to communicate why the policy was created and how it will benefit us. A robust policy can survive criticism and can become even stronger.

We all like a bit of hero worship because a heroic narrative inspires us and motivates us. But we should probably restrict it to the sports arenas where it can do less harm!