Tim Minchin’s new song “The Fence” (lyrics here) has got me thinking. He’s right, of course, that people and their ideologies are more complex — and probably more flawed — than we assume, and this is why hero worship is almost always a bad idea.
On the other hand, good ideas are almost always delivered by imperfect messengers.
Yes, the author of the Declaration of Independence was a slaveholder. Yes, a much-celebrated builder of girls’ schools in Pakistan may turn out to be a fraud. Yes, Christopher Hitchens is sexist. Yes, Al Gore has a big carbon footprint. None of this diminishes their value as great communicators for their causes: for liberty and equality, for the education and empowerment of women, for reason over superstition, for treading more lightly on the planet. And so on. The fact that they may fail to live up to their own ideals (or that they may be disagreeable for other reasons) doesn’t mean that they can’t be incredibly effective in inspiring others to take up those ideals and — slowly, imperfectly — improve the world.
We must evaluate all ideas and ideologies on their merits, of course. But if we refuse to consider them unless their proponents are also perfect human beings, then nothing will ever change for the better.