“The danger with people like him… is that we put them on pedestals. They become symbols, icons, and then we start to forget about their flaws. From there… innocent people die, movements are formed, wars are fought.”
– Baron Helmut Zemo, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
Season 1, Episode 3, “Power Broker”
In this (slightly redacted) quote, Zemo is referring specifically to the idea of super soldiers like Captain America, and how we people idolize such, putting them on pedestals because of what they can do, giving them more power because they already have more power, when, really, they’re just other human beings. With all that power in such flawed hands, well, it inevitably all goes to crap and people suffer for it.
Zemo is, in a way, on to something, but it’s more general than he thinks. I have noticed many times that we, as human beings, tend to either deify or demonize each other. People are either heroes or villains, angels or demons, good or bad, through and through. It’s a terribly flawed perspective, yet sadly common as well, despite how short-sighted, two-dimensional, self-limiting, and even destructively dangerous it is.
Take the relationship between a parent and a child, for instance. The parent may see the child as an angelic baby, and the child may see the parent as an immaculate figure of godlike prestige and power. And then, as the child grows, the flaws begin to emerge, the disagreements, the arguments, until the parent is a hypocritical tyrant and the growing child is a stubborn, savage little demon who has surely been led astray by some foreign influence. From there, the conflicts may eventually settle into a mutual understanding that they are both simply human, or they may erupt into bitter, lifelong disputes. All because they could only see each other as one thing or the other, as either angelic or demonic, godlike or pathetic.
Almost every view that we have of our fellow humans follows that basic pattern. Public figures and celebrities can be adored one moment and then savagely attacked by their own fans and supporters in the next breath, the instant they do something “imperfect.” Or the other way around, the moment the guy nobody likes does something good and useful, people tolerate them better, even like them in a strange way. Or maybe, as is sadly common, they support a particular leader no matter what, without question, as if they can do no wrong. It’s ridiculous, and dangerous. Sure, it enabled George Washington as a leader, but it also enabled the tyranny of Adolf Hitler. It is the essence of cancel culture, of censorship, and so much worse. It is the air breathed by empires and rebellions alike. All because of the pedestals that people use for others, and often crave for themselves.
How many heroes have been entirely condemned for a single wrong they did? How many times have the villains done something terrible only to be forgiven, or otherwise given some slack, the moment they do something the audience thinks of as good? Heck, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier is practically a case study (especially on the heels of WandaVision) in how the audience reacts in rabid praise or condemnation of the people on the screen (character and actor alike) and of each other as well, based on whatever opinion we dare to voice.
I wonder what it is about us that we have to try and peg everyone around us in some sort of moral pecking order. Does it help us understand where we are, ourselves? I don’t think so. I think it just gives us a chance to think we are better than some people, while also giving us an excuse not to try and better ourselves because, on some level, we think we can’t be as good as such-and-such person that we’ve placed higher in our moral pecking order. And then comes the bitter disappointment if one “higher up” does not meet our expectations.
I don’t always succeed, but I try, very hard, to avoid looking at the people around me like that. I try, instead, to just see the person, the fellow human, who is doing the best that they know how. I can learn from them, and they can learn from me, and we can all improve ourselves together. That’s what it means to work together: no one is better or worse, we just do our best and support each other.
That is unity, and it comes, first and foremost, in avoiding the mentality of pedestals.
No matter our station, our position, our power… we’re all just people.