Reconciling Role Models

What is the purpose of role models if not to model ourselves after them and then do better?

On Sept. 18, at 6:28pm, I was finishing up a shift at work, and responding to a text from my boss. A push notification dropped down from NPR with the headline “Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Champion Of Gender Equality, Dies At 87.” Fortunately, no one was in the store, and my body crumpled to the ground in disbelief.
I called my friend Meghann Spillane, who had yet to hear the news. For the last five years, whenever a shocking headline comes out, she has been the first person I call. I called my mom, laughing hysterically (an unfortunate and involuntary response I have when shocked). I called another friend, Megan Sutor. We have an inside joke about how we get identical notifications from our news sources, so I knew she saw the headline too.
It took me a couple of days to process what the death of Ginsburg means for the political future of our country, and the impact her legacy leaves for our generation. She has inspired many generations. My grandma, my mom, and myself were all devastated by her loss.
She has forever changed the way women are seen in the eyes of the law. We are now considered more equal in housing laws, contract laws, widow laws, custody laws, and countless other aspects. Because of Ginsburg, I have equal access to education under the law. I can sue for gender-based discrimination in the workplace. These achievements are monumental because now as an adult, I will not have to think twice about whether there are objective laws standing in my way because of my gender, and the precedent she has set makes it so that even after her death, no one can create laws defying them.
But I know there are also those, although they are upset over her loss, who did not idolize her.
Role models are becoming far and few between, because with the Internet and the world at our fingertips, no one will not be villainized to some extent. Most everyone has a damning tweet haunting them that they would never repeat today, and it’s hard to say you see someone as a role model without someone interjecting “But what about when they…?”
Of course, there are different thresholds of problematic behavior. Every human is flawed, and has done something in their past that may have gotten them in trouble if more people had heard it. But there is certainly a difference between deliberately hurting someone or being excessively bigoted, than using an outdated, offensive term in the past.
I have spent a lot of time thinking and writing about how to fairly acknowledge figures of our past. This last month, many women celebrated the 100th anniversary of the ratification of the 19th Amendment, which protected the right to vote regardless of sex. But this celebration was not without controversy: the women we remember from the suffrage movement, such as Anna Howard Shaw, Alice Paul, and Susan B. Anthony villainized black men, blaming them for the lack of women’s suffrage, and intentionally excluded black women from their movement. Alice Paul told all of the predominantly black organizations at the 1913 D.C. suffrage parade they must stay at the end of the parade.
Ginsburg was not perfect. I do not stand by every decision she made, or share every belief she had. She criticized Colin Kapernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem. She consistently dissented on cases that would have restored funding and support for indigenous tribes in America. She ruled it constitutional for the federal government to continue building a pipeline under the Appalachian Trail, destroying the ancestral land of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina as well as having a negative environmental impact.
How do we remember people who have made progress, while still acknowledging their flaws and holding them accountable for their mistakes?
The answer for me is two-fold. We can not punish people who have died. The option left is to look at what is in our control.
First, we must consider personal growth and cultural changes. Even as recently as 2002, only 31% of Americans were in favor of gay marraige. In 2020, 67% of Americans are in favor (Gallup Polls). A 36% over 18 years increase is not enough to account for the change in generations. People should be allowed and encouraged to change their views to a more progressive ideology. But we can not sit complacently and let it happen: we have to be the catalysts that make the shift in national beliefs, as activists for same-sex marraige did.
We can hold people currently in positions of power to a higher standard. If they are still alive, pressure them any way you can to do better. We must exercise our civil duty and send them letters, call their offices, and vote them out if they are not fighting for all people.
Secondly, we can control our own actions and hold ourselves accountable. What is the purpose of role models if not to model ourselves after them and then do better? We must remember and celebrate the positive work they did, but grow from their mistakes rather than making them ourselves. It is time to acknowledge the good and the bad in idols — it makes them more human and gives us an opportunity to be better.