Eettickal: The dangers of admiration

Enya Eettickal, Contributing Writer

Over quarantine, I, like many others, spent a sizable amount of my time watching TV. And contrary to what my parents believe, I think that there are productive outcomes to immersing yourself in media—at least, if you’re looking at the right things. 

So this summer, when I was watching Bleach, an action-based anime, one of those productive, eye-opening moments came to me. 

I’ll set the scene (and for those who care, spoiler warning): A military captain, Sosuke Aizen, who was missing in action, reappears to his lieutenant. The lieutenant was overjoyed by the reunion until her beloved captain stabs her, revealing himself to be the villain. When another captain confronts him and asks how he could betray someone who looked up to him, Aizen responds that he could because “admiration is the emotion furthest from understanding” 

As someone who has admired many professors, coaches, mentors and peers in my lifetime, the concept of admiration being far from understanding initially took me by surprise. But as I sat on my couch and thought about it, I started to understand.

For the purposes of this article, I’d like to specify that I use the term admiration in reference to blind admiration. When someone says they “admire” a person, I see it as synonymous with “pedestalization.” While there are lesser extents of admiration, my use of admiration throughout this article will be restricted to the more extreme forms. 

Admiration, though it forges the feeling of knowing someone, is actually a bit of a delusion. And the delusion of understanding is more dangerous than not understanding at all. So recognizing why admiration is dangerous and unlearning blind admiration was a part of my philosophical journey sparked by this quote.

I also would like to draw the distinction between admiring a person’s qualities and a person themself. Admiring certain characteristics of an individual is not inherently problematic. However, admiring a person poses a few more issues. In pursuing an ideal personality or identity, their flaws are erased in the process, and that is what I’ll be discussing. 

It may just be me, but there’s a good few people I would say I admire, especially at Case Western Reserve University. I’m apt at seeing the best in humanity, and being surrounded by such intelligent and ambitious people feeds that habit. But that makes the dangers of admiration more of a concern for me. The two main issues that stem from admiring someone are a misrepresentation of identity and a false sense of security.

After reflecting, I’ve realized just how easy it is to misrepresent who someone is when you admire them. Truthfully, it’s a bit terrifying. Paying close attention to the way they act and what they like, all intending to mimic their behaviors, paints a very different picture of who they are. While knowing their hobbies and summarizing their resume are wonderful fun facts, it undercuts their struggles and vices, the things that make them human. This feeds directly into the second issue. 

When a person’s identity is simplified, they’re perceived as almost perfect. What’s perfect can do no wrong. And when with those who can do no wrong, there’s no need to have your guard up because there’s nothing at risk, right?

That’s the train of logic that leads people to be vulnerable around those they admire. There is an inherent trust with admiration, even if that trust is not deserved. 

Because of the praise and trust given with admiration, a power dynamic emerges as well. It explains why we usually see mentors, professors, coaches and all authority figures as admirable individuals of society. 

But an established hierarchy doesn’t always guarantee full power; rather, some power has to be willingly offered to the higher-ups by their subordinates to be fully effective. While a professor can set a deadline for you to turn in a paper, they cannot control if you come into office hours to discuss and edit that paper. Essentially, you have to willingly give them the power to shape your argument and thoughts. To obtain that type of power, an individual requires the respect or admiration of their subordinates. And while respect has to be earned and can also be lost, admiration submits to authority freely with less critique. It then falls on the authority figure to maintain the respect they’ve earned and not abuse the admiration they receive. 

Unfortunately, this ideal is not always met. And while we don’t see mentors and leaders stabbing their students in the back like in Bleach, we hear about stories that metaphorically go the same way. Abuses of power by authorities in emotional, physical and logistical manners are common. Whether it be a sports coach, a teacher, a boss or just an older figure, authorities take the trust placed in them and take advantage of it. What’s worse is that their students may not even realize they’ve been taken advantage of; they suffer the consequences and risk being manipulated again. 

It doesn’t always have to be in the grand scheme of things either. I’ve been lucky in that I’ve never experienced anything to that extent—the degree to which I’ve experienced abuses of power is when I’ve trusted authority figures to do the right thing or keep their word, and they fall short of it. And while it hasn’t put me in a precarious situation, it still can hurt. But recognizing that notion was necessary for my well being as well. Realizing that these “perfect” individuals may not be all I expected allows me to deconstruct my limited understanding of them, lower my expectations for them and level out the power dynamic ever so slightly. Understanding that they are human and make mistakes too, puts me in a position where I won’t fall victim to their miscalculations. 

I’m not saying that nobody is worthy of admiration. I do genuinely believe that the few professors and professionals I look up to are well deserving of my trust. But it definitely won’t hurt to evaluate people a bit more closely before I decide to give them my admiration. No matter what status they might have, you never know which captain might be like Aizen.