It can be all too easy to make snap judgements as to whether personalities of today and from the past are good or bad.
Sometimes with only a little information about an individual’s character, we feel we can make comprehensive assessments and come out with bold statements.
History books get written and reputations stick. Winston Churchill was a hero, most would say justifiably, and Adolf Hitler was a villain, so it goes.
But even here, in what appears to be a clear cut case of good and evil, not all would agree. Remember that Hitler was democratically elected to the position of Chancellor and, even today, neo Nazis see him as the saviour of Germany at a difficult time in its history. And a new BBC documentary and accompanying book will argue that the German leader had charisma.
That’s not to say that as new evidence is unearthed, we can’t alter our perceptions of people who have passed away.
We once thought that Jimmy Savile was a hero. All his charity work, fundraising for hospitals, and making the dreams come true for countless children on Jim’ll Fix It gave us an impression that he was a nice guy. The claims now being made on a daily basis that he abused young girls show just how much of a villain he was.
History is never made, it’s always in the making.
Yet for the most part, we make judgements about people and they stick.
Aside from the high profile personalities from history, there are countless others that have been put into the categories of ‘hero’ and ‘villain’.
I heard the stories of some people with London links on two excellent guided walks, in the City and Clerkenwell, last weekend. Entitled ‘Heroes and Villains’, the day gave guests the chance to get to know better characters ranging from philanthropists to armed robbers.
On one walk the guide was quick to point out whether the individuals were good or bad, on the other we were left to make our own minds up (but even then, from the way the stories were told, it was clear what the guide wanted us to think).
Not that I’m complaining. During an hour long walk it is near impossible to go into detail about the character of eight or so people. And you need to entertain the public as well as inform.
But we all do need to delve a little deeper. That’s why history in schools is so important. Young people need to have access to as much evidence as possible, so they can make up their own minds about personalities and events.
The media likes things to be clear cut – good or (preferably) bad, but in truth life is far from black and white. We need to train the independent thinkers of tomorrow, the people who can way up the options and make a valid judgement.
Most people thankfully won’t have been anywhere near as evil as Hitler and Savile by the time they die.
But there is a spectrum of good and bad. Even those who are seen as extremely kind and generous will have told white lies once or twice in their lives.
There is both a hero and villain in us all.