The recent celebration of Father’s Day occasioned some heartwarming accounts of strong men who protected their families, were self-sacrificing, and most importantly, served as role models. Instead of fuming over the newest outrage, these stories presented a welcome opportunity for readers to consider whom they see as their own role models.
Confronting this question brings up two problems, however. The first is that some people might not have any role models. While some may have fathers, mothers, teachers, uncles, or other mentor figures who were role models, many others have no one. Usually, studies have focused on black children, girls, or children from single-parent households, but the lack of role models extends to most young people today. Judging by how often they’re on their phones, it can be assumed that they mostly look to their peers for personal guidance.
This leads to the second problem: most people don’t know what a role model is. Often, they think role models must be social paragons. They either must have money, power, or fame, preferably all three. The president of the United States is a role model. The founder of a tech monopoly is a role model. The father who works at Hobby Lobby to pay for child support could never be a role model. Or so the thinking goes.
A better question, then, would be: What exactly is a role model? As the name suggests, it’s a person who models a particular role. This would include public roles like that of a citizen or legislator as well as private roles like that of a parent or mentor. Role models are less a person we look up to, and more a lens through which we view ourselves and form judgements about life.
Roles models help bring order and coherence to society and its members, not through heroic acts but through logical and moral consistency. A person with many role models develops an understanding about how the world works, and can thus find his place in it. Working, socializing, and nurturing are familiar tasks, because he has seen others do it already.
As one might expect, a lack of role models brings the opposite. Society becomes an intimidating jungle of improvisation, intimidation, and exploitation. A person with few or no role models learns to fear all responsibilities and commitments. Nothing is familiar because the people who were supposed to teach and guide either never existed or were made invisible.
Unfortunately, between the breakup of the family and the rise of technology and more escapist entertainment, many Millennials and iGens increasingly experience the world without role models. Few people around them demonstrate what it’s really like to be a functional adult.
As a result, many of them have hang-ups about marriage, family, friendship, and steady employment. By most standards, they simply don’t grow up, or as Victor Davis Hanson puts it, they “are suffering from prolonged adolescence.” Millennials only have a vague idea of what they should be doing as adults, but they aren’t doing it, and this frustrates many of them. Meanwhile, iGens seem even more removed from physical reality and aspire to be online influencers—though, to be fair, a year’s worth of virtual education and paperless instruction made this problem worse.
Untethered from the very idea of roles, let alone role models, younger generations struggle with identity complexes. Thus, they fall prey to identity politics that divide society by race, gender, and sexual preference. They may not know what they should do, but they know what they are and they have the labels and pronouns to prove it.
Not surprisingly, abandoning all roles—except maybe the role of victim—inevitably leaves most people feeling lonely and lost. What does one do if he is the member of an oppressed group, or worse, he is one of the oppressors? Complain? Apologize? Virtue signal? Shame conservatives?
Within the identitarian framework, the closest thing to a role model is an activist. They become the heroes speaking out and becoming famous, while the rest of the world reinforces a corrupt system by actually working and producing things. These lesser folk may not score the same amount of clicks and endorsements, but they do find a fair amount of meaning in their lives.
They also find community. Those who make a life out of finding the appropriate label are far less concerned with what they do for others and far more concerned with what others do for them. They want reparations, recognition, rewards, and respect. They would be so much happier if they sought work, family, religion, and friendships instead.
In light of this, the first step to restoring role models is returning to reality itself. People need to live honestly and end the illusions. To do this, they should stop obsessing over their own needs and think about what the people around them need. Seeing to others’ needs causes people to actually see others, listen to them, think of them. They find their roles and start looking for models as well as become models themselves.
Satire writer David Wong says as much in a now classic essay for Cracked, “Six Harsh Truths That Will Make You a Better Person.” Although he doesn’t put it in terms of being a role model, he explains that our refusal to define our lives by what we do eventually causes self-loathing: “you don’t hate yourself because you have low self-esteem, or because other people were mean to you. You hate yourself because you don’t do anything. Not even you can just ‘love you for you.’”
This means putting away the screens, talking and listening to real people in the physical world, and becoming a life-long learner. It also means taking risks, taking on responsibilities, and cultivating humility.
Naturally, there are those who adopt the argument of Ralph Waldo Emerson, who famously claimed “whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist,” and insisted that roles and role models suppress one’s individuality. On the contrary, they do the opposite. Those who dispense with particular roles end up joining the hive mind and parrot the slogans of others. They rely on others to think and act for them since they have accepted a passive and generic definition of identity.
Moreover, Emerson argued against those who conform to things mindlessly, not those who conform to a role with full understanding. The former is the path of slavery, bound by ideology and peer approval, while the latter points one to true freedom, bound only by experience and truth. Freedom and individuality are concrete realities that accompany action, not abstract components of an amorphous blob of postmodernist thinking.
Contrary to those who oppose definitions and rules everyone has a role, whether they like it or not. They can deny this or ignore this, but they cannot change this. Rather, they should embrace this truth. By doing so, they will finally start seeing the role models around them and will become models themselves.