Friday, September 23, 2016

The Role Model Freak Show

Sometimes being blunt and marginally irreverent is the only way to get a point across.  That’s what I’ll do today.

There is absolutely no reason why a role model has to look like me, yet politicians and the media continue to propagate this idea.  I can look up to, admire and try to emulate the positive character traits of anyone I want to.  I don’t have to get distracted by their physical characteristics.

This recent news feature bought the subject to mind.  A star wide receiver on the Florida State football team befriended an autistic middle school student.  When he noticed the young man sitting alone in the cafeteria, he "grabbed a slice of pizza and asked if he could join him."  This so impressed his mother that she posted a thank you on line, which led to the gift of a jersey and tickets to a game.  The mother said they both would be his “fans for life.”  It made no difference to anyone that they were of different racial backgrounds.

President Barack Obama is another good example.  Many people can argue with and disagree about many of the paths he followed in his life and many of the decisions he has made or failed to make as president, but there is one series of behaviors that everyone should agree were praiseworthy.  He got an education, got married and had children – in that order.  He stayed married and took responsibility to help support and raise the children.

There is absolutely no reason why a young man of any background or heritage cannot look at this and see that it is the proper course to follow.  He doesn’t have to search around for some guy of his particular race with good behavior to understand that he too can have good behavior or accomplishments.

I say behavior or accomplishments, because anyone can pick and choose what parts of someone else’s life are positive examples. A young swimmer, either a boy or girl, can look at Brian Lochte and tell that hard work and practice got him to the Olympics, and adopt the hard-work and practice as a personal goal, ignoring the arrogant, immature and dishonest behavior that came to light in Rio.  A young soccer player (boy or girl) can look at Hope Solo and see a great athlete with a sour attitude, electing to adopt the work ethic and standards of performance that made her great, while adopting the standards of sportsmanship from another source.  This is common sense.

But the media sees it a different way. They seem to believe, if the person is not of your race or gender, most people can’t figure out how to act or can’t believe that certain accomplishments are even possible.  So we hear almost daily that person A is the first woman to hold a particular position or that person B is the first Hispanic to do something.  Sometimes they even double up:  Person C is the first African-American woman to receive a certain award.  All this does is reinforce stereotypes in the minds of the so-called victims or minorities.  And those personal stereotypes can be the most destructive.  With them in place you don’t need to wait for the system or the uneven playing field to hold you back, you get to hold yourself back while you wait for someone with your physical characteristics to excel at what you always wanted to do.

So instead of encouraging folks to work hard and excel on their own, the media and politicians continue to highlight this as a kind of “accomplishments freak show.”  They hold people up as role models by emphasizing their physical traits - emphasizing differences instead of those things that bind us together and then wondering why the country is so divided.  This emphasis on appearance is reminiscent of a circus sideshow with the bearded woman and the rubber man and other oddities.  "Oh, look, it’s the first [race, gender or sexual preference] kind of person in a particular category!"  They see it as a measure of progress, but the real measure of progress would be judging people not by the color of their skin (or gender or preference), but by the content of their character.  (A 50-year-old idea that still rings true.)

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