Why We Put Up Monuments, And Why We Tear Them Down

Originally published in the December 2017 issue of “Apostate Monthly” magazine

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Humans need heroes.

Men and women alike want heroes in their life; if you don’t believe me, think of how many books, movies, graphic novels, and other stories revolve around heroes, including the strong soldier, the knight in shining armor, or the rogue loner out fighting crime alone.

Humans have even invented the concept of “superheroes,” or characters that are stronger, faster, braver, and a little more moral than the common man. This is how desperate we are to have heroes; we actually create outlandish stories of billionaires who spend their wealth on learning how to physically fight crime one-on-one, or of strong, human-like aliens from other planets who walk and fly among us.

Our incessant need for heroes, however, doesn’t always mean creating stories or fictional characters. We might idolize individuals from history, be they icons of politics, war, social movements, and religion. We include them in history books, and even whitewash their stories a little bit, removing anything that might be controversial, while glossing over unflattering details.

superheroWe revere those people as especially wise, repeating their words in sound bites and speeches. We even create actual monuments to them, carved in stone and cast on pedestals.

Yes, humans need heroes, but why? Why do we elevate people, assign them this status, and purify their real stories? Why do we put up actual monuments to honor them?

More importantly, why do we eventually tear those monuments down?

WHY DO WE NEED HEROES?

Of course, I’m not a psychologist so I can’t offer anything more than my own opinion, but I would guess that we create heroes who are stronger than us because we see the problems in the world as being larger than us. We feel overwhelmed and helpless against criminals, bullies, corrupt politicians, and warmongers who wield all the power and control all the wealth. Since we feel so helpless on our own, we create heroes who fight those people for us.

When I first found out that Superman wasn’t real, I was about maybe eight. And I was talking to my mother about it. And she was like, ‘No, no, no. There’s no Superman.’ And I started crying. I really thought he was coming to rescue us. The chaos, the violence, the danger. No hero was coming.
Geoffrey Canada

Even if heroic stories are not based in reality, we still enjoy the concept of a superhero, soldier, street fighter, and whomever else, who faces down the bad guys and comes away victorious.

We create stories with mythical enemies, be that killer robots or aliens from another planet, and imagine the hero vanquishing them, simply because we like to think that it’s possible, in some way, to win against those who would do us harm and against those who are too strong and powerful for us to face on our own.

We need to believe that there are those in the world who can take the lead in fighting for us. This is why we look for heroes, and even invent them when necessary.

HERO WORSHIP AND FORMER CULT MEMBERS 

This is especially true for those coming out of abusive religions and cults; oftentimes, because we’ve suffered so much abuse, and because we want that cult or religion to answer for what they’ve done to us, we look to “heroes” who will face that group head-on. We follow activists, reporters, government agencies, lawyers, celebrity ex-members, and whomever else seems to be taking the lead in that fight, and they become our hero.

HERO WORSHIPAs with creating or assigning heroics to anyone, this isn’t always the healthiest choice for former cult members, which brings me to my next point; since heroes, and monuments to those brave men and women, seem to serve a purpose in our psyche, why do we eventually take those monuments down? Why do plaques, statues, and portraits sometimes get destroyed, even publicly?

See also: Hundreds of UNC students protest plan to relocate toppled Confederate statue Silent Sam

What happens when we realize that someone we once put up on a pedestal, literally or figuratively, doesn’t belong there any longer?

WHY WE TAKE DOWN THOSE MONUMENTS

The answer, in my own humble and amateur opinion, lies in an interesting paradox about heroes. We have such a desperate need to see someone as better than ourselves, that we then overlook the very things that make them no better than us, turning a blind eye to a supposed hero’s failings and imperfections.

We do that because we need to do that; after all, if we acknowledged those failings, they wouldn’t be our hero… they would just be one of us.

As humans, we can also change our mind about what makes a person worth putting on a pedestal. Political leaders of one generation can be seen as villains to the next. We learn the truth about propaganda that has built a person’s reputation, finding out that their work may have actually done more harm than good, or that they used their fame and fortune for less-than-heroic endeavors.

We may even suffer a personal affront with “heroes” we know in real life; they may show a revolting side to their personality, turn on us after a simple disagreement, or reveal that their work is only for notoriety, and not done out of a real concern for others. After that, their statues, and even their memories, seem like an offense, belonging in a history book rather than on a pedestal.

BE YOUR OWN HERO

So what is the solution? Perhaps a bit of a reality check can be a good start. It’s nice to create heroes who go on adventures and face impossible odds and challenges, and we can enjoy the thrills of going on that ride with them, but this is often best left to the movies.

In real life, rarely is anyone ever so brave and heroic and strong, and so without fault, that they should stand head and shoulders above everyone else. There are a few figures in history who have done things worthy of such respect, yes, but chances are, not the many number who have plaques and statues erected in their honor, their monuments put on pedestals. Those achievements may also not be enough to compensate for other bad behavior, or selfish motives for their work.

heroHaving a healthier view of yourself can also mean having a healthier view of so-called heroes. Seeing yourself as being brave, strong, and heroic, just as much as those whom you idolize and admire, can result in far less unnecessary idolization.

Yes, it can be good to admire achievement and wisdom, there is no question about that, but also realize that those heroes are often no better, and no more deserving of praise and adulation, than the next person, including you.

If we learn to avoid putting people up on pedestals, and stop seeing them as heroes in the first place, then we won’t be as disappointed when faults and failings are discovered, and we won’t need to topple so many monuments, literal and figurative, over time.

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