Gandhi and Idealization

I just read an article arguing Gandhi likely sexually abused young girls. It re-enforced for me how dangerous it is to idealize. We end up ignoring anything that might tarnish our fantasy, reject critical thinking, and unintentionally create the space for abuse of power to occur. This is as true for political and religious figures as it is for celebrities.

I still find Gandhi’s non-violent fight for India’s independence admirable – people, like life, are not black and white, good or bad – but his questionable past exploiting young girls must be acknowledged. Many Indians consider Gandhi to be the nation’s father, so it sets a dangerous precedent to ignore these wrongdoings. If India wishes to make progress in ending violence against women, it must start holding all of its powerful male politicians, gurus, and other leaders accountable. (Fyi, I am a Gujarati Indian – like Gandhi – from a Hindu background, although I now identify as an agnostic theist.)

And I’d add, this applies to every revered historical figure and country. We can’t just ignore unpleasant facts when it deviates from the popular narrative; we’re no longer re-counting history but reciting a fairy tale when we do. We must investigate these figures and countries critically, taking in their positive but also negative contributions. Jefferson, the great aristocratic American Founding Father, owned slaves – in fact, all of the Founding Fathers did. Mother Theresa was homophobic. Abraham Lincoln was a racist; closer inspection reveals the civil war was fought to preserve the Union, not for ideological reasons – just like most wars. (The Southern economy was strong due to slavery; Lincoln sought to weaken it to insure the rebellious South, angry over Northern taxes, would not leave the Union.)

The purpose of mentioning these people isn’t to prove they’re bad; it’s simply to show people, whether they are Mother Teresa or Gandhi, are human. It’s possible to be and do good and bad at the same time. When you label a figure as one or the other, however, you begin to look at history from a narrow lens that blinds you to the whole truth. And too often that comes at a price for the powerless few.

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