The end of idols

Aung San Suu Kyi’s failure to defend the Rohingya Muslims from state violence is just the latest sign of a world bereft of moral leadership.

Credit: Dom Pates/Flickr

If we’re now living in an age of fake news, then it’s also an age of fake idols. This week the pope delivered a speech in Myanmar in which he failed to make reference to the Rohingya – the Muslim community facing a sustained and barbaric campaign of violence, rape and mass murder at the hands of government troops.

To date over 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have been driven from Rakhine state in western Myanmar into neighbouring Bangladesh, with the UN describing the assault as a “textbook example” of ethnic cleansing. The accounts of brutal violence and torture told by survivors are particularly harrowing, including cases of babies being burned alive.

The pope’s omission would be shocking then, were it not for the fact that he made the address alongside Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar leader who has herself faced heavy criticism for failing to act to protect the Rohingya.

Suu Kyi was once venerated as a saint for her role in leading the democratic movement in Myanmar against the military junta – a role that saw her placed under house arrest for nearly 15 years before her release in 2010. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991 for her activism in the country.

Her complicity in the Rohingya crisis – and the self-inflicted trashing of her reputation – is unnerving and distressing, but it fits with an age in which the very notion of idols or role models feels increasingly obsolete. In every area of public life – from business, to the entertainment industry to global politics – we are witnessing a moral vacuum at the highest levels of power.

The Paradise Papers leak, for example, showed that large corporations, politicians, pop stars, sports stars and even the Queen are involved in systematic tax avoidance. The recent tide of sexual harassment and assault allegations, meanwhile, has exposed the behaviour of once idolised cultural figures such as actor Kevin Spacey and comedian Louis CK.

Of course all these issues are very different, and the comparison only goes so far. The point is simply to reflect on what it means for wider society when idols fall at such a rapid rate.

Looming above all this of course is Donald Trump, a man who actively attacks the values of the once honourable institution of President of the United States. That someone as openly spiteful, vain and self-interested as Trump (who has bragged about committing sexual assault, no less) can hold such an office shows the extent to which moral bankruptcy is not just accepted, but institutionalised today.

Perhaps it’s time then that we stop looking to the powerful for guidance and inspiration, and instead look at each other to rediscover some shared human values. Often our supposed idols, icons and role models are part of the problem, not the solution.

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