Hans-Jochen Vogel, the great SPD politician who just died, has rightly been described as an example in many obituaries. This was followed by virtues such as diligence, discipline, a sense of duty, loyalty and reliability. These are virtues such as those of Oskar Lafontaine, one of Vogel’s successors as SPD leader, that mocked secondary virtues in 1982 – in his bitter argument with Chancellor Helmut Schmidt about retrofitting. The fact that I didn’t like the word role model for a long time had no such political or social-critical reason. My aversion to that Idol had a religious occasion.
It was like this: For first communion, which played an important role in the Bavarian Catholic world of my childhood, my godfather gave me a thick book bound in red linen, which was titled “Heroes and Saints” in gold letters. In his dedication, Uncle Mich wrote, with a solemnity that was alien to him, of “incentive and drive” that these heroes and saints should be to me. All attempts to read the six hundred pages failed due to the sultry language and the fact that I could not do anything with the martyrs and the way in which they were presented there in large numbers.
Since then, the word role model has meant the meaning of illegible and unliveable piety, of habitual holiness, of an exhausting and strained all-round perfection. There were no mistakes; and if they did exist, then as bravely overcome weaknesses that made the picture even more brilliant. That was and is not particularly personable. Role model – that tasted of pickle with whipped cream. When I read about the real or alleged deficits of people like John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa, it made me more sympathetic.
People who become role models, mostly without their own intention, are often unlucky enough to no longer be accepted in their ambivalences. In doing so, they rapture the world; they become unapproachable. They are stylized into immaculate personalities, whose credibility then allegedly suffers from the fact that they are not. But it may be that the whistleblower is an idiot at work. The courageous human rights activist may be a dude. The devoted doctor may have an alcohol problem and the imprisoned peace activist may be a super macho. Are they automatically unsuitable as role models?
An unpretentious description by Erich Kästner reconciled me with the word role model; he wrote: “Every person is looking for role models! Because there are some. And it is unimportant whether it is a great dead poet, Mahatma Gandhi or Uncle Fritz from Braunschweig if he is only a person who is in the would have said and done what we hesitate to do without blinking an eyelash. ” That means: Not the virtue brave is a role model. It’s not about heroism. Goodness does not have to jump out of a buttonhole. The point is that the person I take as a role model gives me good impetus and encouragement. A good role model is a person who can be educated in the best sense. The model is an example, but not a prefabricated form that you can fit into. A role model is different from an idol. An idol has fans, emulators and admirers who copy their idol, but always aware that they will never be the same. The moment that happened, it lost its magic. Idols appeal to people’s fantasies and their seducibility; they function as their projection surface.
An idol has an image, a role model has character
Donald Trump understands how to manipulate it and make political capital out of it. The Indian Bussa Krishna had made a life-size Trump statue before Trump’s trip to India, before which he was photographed in prayer. Something like that would have belonged in the cabinet of curiosities if it did not fit well with the exaggerated self-presentation of the US president, who prefers to pose as king in the fairytale castle of bad taste – the gilded Trump Tower. It was the insane fear of losing his image that made him face mask more fearful than the spread of the pandemic.
An idol has an image, a role model has character. A role model helps to discover who you are or can be. A role model helps shape the self-image. It awakens the creative powers, there is energy, it tempts to develop; and the most exemplary is the person who allows the other to grow beyond him. A role model speaks to people’s strengths and extends them.
The first Idol, also in the literal sense, the image that a person first has in mind is almost always the image of the mother; if things go well, the father’s face too. The ego of the human being is formed on these non-chosen pre-images. The little person learns who he is; he learns whether the world means well with him, what place he has in it. At the beginning of life you have no choice, you have these role models; they are vital, sometimes if they are too often reflected in carelessness and indifference, they are also destructive. If you had an “Uncle Fritz” or an “Aunt Frieda” in the Kästnerian sense of father and mother, you are extremely lucky.
In the obituaries, Hans-Jochen Vogel has often been referred to as “grandfatherly”. That’s a nice word, because there is something delightful about it – the idea of a father you can rely on. It is the last honor for a person who – with quirks and mistakes – was and is a role model.