Post-death, Post-truth – Does etiquette distract us from candid discussion of controversial legacies?

Post-death, Post-truth – Does etiquette distract us from candid discussion of controversial legacies?

[Written by Betty Henderson]

[Image Credit: flickr.com//Jon S]

This article was originally featured in the ‘Distractions’ issue.

From a young age, we are taught that it is wrong to speak ill of the dead. It is an idea that is so ingrained in our society that it has become taboo to speak badly about someone who is no longer around to defend themselves, even if people were more than happy to criticise them when they were alive. But how does this affect the way we remember a polarising figure after their death? Are we distracted by this social convention to such an extent that we alter the truth of their impact in life? Does this level of respect equate to a sort of collective amnesia where we discard any prior negative opinions we might have had about a person, or does it actually allow us a more objective lens through which we can view their legacies without unwarranted hatred?

In line with custom, the internet-wide reaction to George Bush Sr.’s death in November this year was remarkably respectful and—in some cases—almost nostalgic. This is surprising considering that the 41st President of the United States was booted out of office amidst a cloud of criticism after serving for only one term. He failed to make good on his promise not to raise taxes, and was largely viewed by the American public as uncaring. It is perhaps because of this that the general coverage following his death seems to have focused on Bush’s personality rather than his policies. He has been depicted as an upstanding member of society, a kind and committed president who was perhaps the last stalwart of a different era of politics.

Indeed, even those who vehemently opposed Bush’s actions, both during his presidency and his previous appointment as the head of the CIA, cannot help but express a nostalgia for the pre-9/11, pre-Trump era of American politics. Ariel Dorfman, writing for The Guardian, states what’s on everyone’s minds: ‘for all the elder Bush’s shortcomings, I would rather have a finger like his on the nuclear trigger than that of an ignorant bully and self-aggrandising, insecure liar’. More than simply respect for the dead, it is perhaps the current climate of political disillusionment that we live in, which has distracted people from the more negative aspects of Bush’s presidency. Dorfman does not let Bush Sr. off the hook for his questionable policies but—like many others—expresses the sentiment that his approach was preferable to that of his son’s chaotic and destructive presidency, and even more so the current situation under Trump.

Collective memories seem to have been warped by distance: Bush’s most controversial and unfavourable moments mainly concerned foreign policy, while his domestic policies—such as the Disabilities Act—were successful and popular in the States. His actions abroad have been condemned by many, but it appears that his impact at home secured his long-term popularity.

Thatcher, however, was a politician whose time in office had a severe and tangible effect on the British public. The former Prime Minister of Great Britain—who was in office at the same time as Bush Sr.—was widely unpopular during her life thanks to her harsh policies and approach to the 1984-1985 miners’ strikes. Unlike coverage of Bush Sr.’s passing, when she died in 2013 the sentiment across social media platforms was far more celebratory than mournful. People across the country tweeted reminders of her controversial approach to politics, and—just as during her life—were not shy in their criticism of the Iron Lady. Impromptu street parties popped up nationwide, pubs in pit villages hosted “happy hours”, and the week after her death the song ‘Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead’ reentered the charts at number two. It must be noted however, that for the most part, media giants and newspapers stayed true to tradition and retained a respectfully neutral tone in their coverage of events. The BBC was even criticised and accused of censorship as they chose not to play ‘Ding-Dong’ in full out of respect for the former prime minister.

Looking at the reaction to the passing of these two figures, the taboo of speaking ill of the dead still holds weight in our society at an institutional level. Although, it is abundantly clear that not everyone agrees with this societal norm. The rise of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter has given the general public license to publish their opinions on an unprecedented scale—and they are certainly not afraid to do so. While official news outlets strive to maintain a respectful—if slightly rose-tinted—stance when covering these issues, there is no shortage of people candidly speaking their minds online.

It is evident that this taboo stems from reason; it is understandable to feel the need to talk respectfully about someone who is no longer capable of defending themselves, and in the same way, there is little sense in ruthlessly insulting a person who can make no further imprint on the world. However, this does not mean that we should paint a falsely positive picture of a controversial figure, or dismiss any harm that they might have caused in their lifetime. A balance must be found wherein we can discuss a person’s legacy candidly, yet respectfully, without being distracted by social norms or unrestrained resentment. In this modern era of fast news and social media, we might be a little closer to finding one.

[Image Description A black and white photograph of stack of newspapers.]

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