Maybe it’s Justin Bieber, or maybe it’s President Obama, or maybe it’s your dad, or maybe it’s Joe Paterno, or maybe it hasn’t even happened yet, but sometime, someone you admire is going to disappoint you. It’s inevitable. People aren’t built to live up to another person’s expectations 100% of the time. It’s why we’re all in therapy, talking about our mothers. Maybe the disappointment will be minor. Maybe your favorite movie star is, it turns out, a painfully obnoxious Hollywood Liberal. Maybe your favorite professor forgot your name. Or maybe, as in the Pennsylvania abuse case, the disappointment will be linked to something so deeply horrifying that people cannot help but feel angry and betrayed.
So what do you do?
Step One: Acknowledge your feelings.
It’s upsetting when someone whom you’ve viewed in a certain light for a long time does something so awful that it makes them a subject of hatred and derision. It’s okay to grieve–and grief is what you are feeling. Trying to pretend that the subject hasn’t upset you because to other people your attachments may seem silly or trivial isn’t going to do you or anyone trying to discuss the matter with you any favors. It’s okay to feel feelings. It’s also okay to have to tell yourself that it’s okay to feel feelings.
Step Two: Shut your mouth and listen.
Generally speaking, I have found that this is the number one step toward Being a Good Person in just about any situation. Remember that your feelings are not the same as facts. Educate yourself before you speak.
Step Three: Acknowledge that what this person has done is wrong.
Even if you are the best person in the world, your love or esteem is not enough to cancel out another person’s bad behavior. The actions of the people you love don’t reflect negatively on you, but your reaction to them does. If you are the person shouting against all evidence otherwise that what is being said about your person is untrue, that makes you an asshole.
Step Four: Think about the other people involved.
It makes you an asshole because you are putting your feelings above the lived, painful experiences of the people your person has directly or indirectly hurt. While your feelings are important, they’re not more important than the safety and well-being of another person, and they’re not more important than the right of a victim to be heard.
Step Five: Decide how you feel about this person knowing what you know now.
No one can tell you what to decide. Maybe you believe that a person’s accomplishments can be separated from their actions, maybe you believe that everyone makes mistakes, or maybe you feel that some actions are reprehensible beyond forgiveness or forgetting. Remember that while no one has the right to tell you how to feel, everyone has the right to decide that you are wrong no matter what you decide.
Every time you feel compelled to defend your person, repeat steps one through five before opening your mouth, typing on your computer, or holding a press conference, or, for that matter, rioting.