In mythologist Joseph Campbell’s famous story template, The Hero’s Journey, an adventurer leaves home, faces the unknown, and returns as a changed person. In every such tale, a low period Campbell calls “The Abyss” becomes the turning point for the hero. Rock bottom, we might call it.
There’s something deeply human about the path that the monomyth’s hero treads. The leaving of the nest, the abyss, and transformation are relatable stages to us in our own life journeys. And like the heroes in Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and Hunger Games, we often adulate those who’ve been to the bottom and back.
For instance, Robert Downey Jr., today’s highest paid actor, famously burnt himself out on drugs and alcohol and stewed in rehab before making a tremendous comeback. Kweisi Mfume spent his teen years fathering various children, and his early adult years in and out of jail before turning his life around and becoming a congressman and the president of NAACP.
My own friend and mentor, David Carr, who passed away suddenly this year, was a crack addict, drug dealer, and abusive husband before he got clean and became an incredible journalist and role model. People adored him, and his redemption story was a big part of that.
I’ve been thinking about The Abyss and redemption this week, after I devoured Jon Ronson’s latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, which explores the lives of people who’ve been ruined by the Internet. Ronson shows how a single tweet or photograph has destroyed everyday people—in some cases people who’ve been completely taken wrong or out of context. The mobs of social media make it difficult to make a mistake anymore and live to Google yourself.
It was curious to me that people like RDJ and Mfume and Carr can bounce back strong and respected after committing shameful actions, while nobodies like the woman who flipped off her friend in front of the veteran memorial sign are told by Twitter that they are “tainted forever.” (It wasn’t funny, but we also judged her incredibly harshly, and without context.)
The inconsistency with which we throw people under the bus for small crimes and misunderstandings can be astounding. For instance, we toss 600,000 people in jail and 40,000 people in prison every year for marijuana possession, something that’s no longer a crime in several states. Many of those people will face stigma and wear the label “ex con” for the rest of their lives. Yet our last two presidents each smoked marijuana, as well as three of the finalists who ran against them (Palin, Gore, and Kerry). None of them saw the inside of a cell for having pot in their pocket.
After reading Ronson’s book, I wondered: How much forgiveness have we given the people we look up to the most as a society? How harsh are we about our heroes’ indiscretions?
As luck would have it, Gallup compiles a list of the “most admired people” every year. I took a look at the current list to see what stigmas they’d weathered.
2014’s 10 Most Admired Men:
- Barack Obama: drugs
- Pope Francis: controversy around Argentina’s “Dirty War”
- Bill Clinton: affair while president (and lied)
- Rev. Billy Graham: anti-Semitic remarks (that he apologized for)
- George W. Bush: drugs, DUI (also: lied about a very big war)
- Ben Carson: controversial gay/prison remarks
- Stephen Hawking: left both of his wives*
- Bill Gates: drugs, cutthroat/anti-trust issues with his business
- Bill O’Reilly: has had sexual harassment scandals, generally bullied and threatened people from his position of power, and recently: lied about his “war zone” reporting
- Benjamin Netanyahu: two divorces* and multiple affairs
2014’s 10 Most Admired Women:
- Hillary Clinton: has a history of pseudo scandals (recently: emails)
- Oprah Winfrey: hard drugs when she was younger
- Malala Yousafzai: has a pretty clean record
- Condoleezza Rice: pretty clean, though she’s had criticism for supporting waterboarding
- Michelle Obama: has a pretty clean record
- Angelina Jolie: drugs, two divorces*
- Sarah Palin: drugs, various lies and gaffes on camera
- Princess Kate: has a pretty clean record
- Elizabeth Warren: claimed to be Native American to get minority status at Harvard
- Laura Bush: ran a stop sign and accidentally killed someone at age 17**
* We can’t necessarily fault someone for getting divorced, or consider making the mistake of marrying the wrong person a scandal. But from a public stigma perspective, the adage, “divorce me once, shame on you; divorce me twice, shame on me” is probably rather accurate.
**Compiling the above list made me surprisingly uncomfortable. These are all public figures, and this info is all publicly available, but something about confessing a whole bunch of people’s worst moments makes me feel self conscious about my own private mistakes.
A significant percentage of the list of people we collectively admire most have had to recover from stigmas, from small to serious, intentional actions to honest mistakes. Some of them haven’t been shamed publicly, but few of them are not blameless.
They’ve been to The Abyss, and made it back.
This is great news for the rest of us imperfect beings. However, there’s something a little inconsistent about the people we forgive and the things we let slide as a culture. It’s shocking, for example, that infractions like tweeting a distasteful joke can result in an everyday person’s decimation while the people who tweet rape threats in retaliation to said person face no repercussions. And how is it that some people can keep jobs and respect after committing plagiarism (Fareed Zakaria) while others lose their careers (Jayson Blair)?
Is it the severity of the crime that determines our willingness to forgive? (Blair did more plagiarism than Zakaria.) Is it the looks or popularity or accomplishments of the criminal that makes it easier for us to let the past be the past? I’ve never smoked marijuana or dropped acid at the time of this writing, though sometimes the lists of leaders and geniuses who have make me wonder if I should. However, if I did, how could I guarantee that I’d end up on an admired person list rather than in jail?
Ronson concludes in his book that in order for us to relegate someone to “unforgivable” status, we have to decide that they are no longer human, that they are beyond repair. He writes:
“I suppose it’s no surprise that we feel the need to dehumanize the people we hurt— before, during, or after the hurting occurs. But it always comes as a surprise. In psychology it’s known as cognitive dissonance. It’s the idea that it feels stressful and painful for us to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time (like the idea that we’re kind people and the idea that we’ve just destroyed someone). And so to ease the pain we create illusory ways to justify our contradictory behavior.”
Ronson, Jon (2015-03-31). So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed (pp. 80-81). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
I asked around: Are there any crimes that truly dehumanize the perp? Crimes for which we have a zero forgiveness policy? Mistakes that take a person “beyond repair?”
What about murder? David, of Old Testament fame, bounced back after basically murdering the husband of a woman he was sleeping with. It took time—and much pleading and psalmsing—but he got our respect again. And some modern murderers have left the slammer and become influences for good.
How about rape? I can’t think of a crime I abhor more. And yet we’ve let Mike Tyson have his life and fame back.
Cruelty to animals? Michael Vick’s comeback is a testament.
Fraud? How about Frank William Abagnale Jr., the reformed bank fraud and identity thief who now runs a security company and gives motivational speeches?
The only crime I could come up with that lacked a redemption example was pedophilia. And that actually points back to Ronson’s explanation of our redemption criteria: the end of the Hero’s Journey, where the hero becomes a changed person. (Pedophiles, society says, don’t change.)
We seem to allow redemption for people who do evil things—or make mistakes—but we don’t redeem people we believe are evil at their core.
This is why we’ve let Mike Tyson back in, but not Bill Cosby. Tyson did terrible things, but on the whole we believe that he’s an okay person now. Cosby, the rapist, presently appears more monster than human.
This is why we can forgive Macklemore for appearing on stage in garb that appeared to mock conservative Jews, for which he apologized profusely and sincerely, whereas it feels like Mel Gibson will never live down his anti-Semitic comments. We don’t believe Macklemore is an anti-Semite, but we are pretty sure Gibson is—his track record of abusive treatment of people makes us think that he’s a creep deep down.
On the other hand, if Mellie Gibsons apologized and made us feel like he was a changed man, we might change our minds about him. In part, as weird as it sounds, because he makes great movies.
It’s not the crime; it’s the pattern that makes us decide a person is “bad” rather than mistaken or flawed. Problem is, with strangers on Twitter or everyday people on the street, we have little opportunity to see the pattern.
I’m a firm believer in, you know, not breaking the law. I prefer not lying, not disparaging others, and not violence. On the other hand, nobody’s perfect. Most of our “most admired people” have done stupid or awful or uncomfortable things at some point and yet we now respect them—sometimes because of the hard journey they’ve been through and the mistakes for which they’ve paid. We’ve managed to separate what they’ve done from who they are, and who they could become. Why don’t we do the same for people who haven’t won elections or become movie stars?
We humans love a good redemption story. Perhaps we should get in the habit of giving our peers—not just our heroes—the chance to have one.