Thursday, March 01, 2012

On Speaking Ill of the Ill-Spoken Dead

In response to the extraordinarily young and horrifically sudden death of Andrew Breitbart, some liberals have been saying nasty things (e.g.), and then justifying them (e.g.) by pointing out that Breitbart himself said quite nasty things about the recently departed.* In response to this, writer Paul Glastris suggests the rule "Don’t Speak Ill Of The Recently Departed, Unless The Recently Departed Spoke Ill Of The Recently Departed".

At first glance, this struck me as wise and correct.

At second thought, however, it raises a great many problems.

Most obviously, can one speak of the dead of those who have only spoken of the dead in accordance with the above rule?

If the answer to that is yes, then the rule creates two sub-populations: those who mutually agree (as it were) that it's fine to speak ill of the dead including themselves (it seems that Matt Yglesias, linked above, is imaging that sort of scenario.) This seems like it might work, although it does have the problem that speaking ill of the dead is not a problem primarily for the dead (i.e. the importance of it isn't limited to respect of the recently departed): it's also about their friends and families (who might not share their view, or even be old enough to have come to a view (I understand that Breitbart -- heartbreakingly -- had small children). In which case, speaking ill of the dead might not be justified even if the recently deceased themselves did so and/or thought it was generally appropriate. (Not the same thing -- I imagine that many people speak ill of the dead thinking only that certain people deserve it, and that they're not among them; others might have no problem with the practice without actually engaging in it.) Even more importantly, it's about our society and ourselves: what sort of people do we wish to be? We might have reasons to discourage speaking ill of the dead even if all involved agree it's right.

But I get the impression that Glastris is not thinking that those who follow his rule themselves are subject to it. (So that, for instance, he himself by writing his post is now fair game when the inevitable fate of mortals should befall him.) For instance, he writes:
Moral rules cannot long hold if there are no consequences for transgressing them. So I think that in the interest of protecting the rule about not badmouthing the recently departed, there should be a proviso that those who willfully and publicly break the rule do not deserve the protection of it when they die. By this standard, Yglesias gets a pass.
...which sounds like saying that this is a special sanction for those who do it, without the sense that it then makes those people themselves subject to it (which creates a free-for-all section rather than something that seems like punishment).

But who is to judge what counts? Does ostentatiously saying nothing after quoting "speak no ill of the dead" and mentioning the death count? Are there degrees here, so that you can only speak as ill of the dead as they spoke of someone else? Wouldn't this just quickly degenerate to an utter removal of the "speak no ill of the dead" rule, since people would interpret what those they disliked said about others has having been ill, beginning a quick race to the bottom?

To be clear, I'm not necessarily endorsing the "speak no ill of the dead" rule. I think there are both real, deep and important reasons -- reasons of dignity and civility and respect and decency -- to hold it. And I think there are some real, deep and important counter-arguments too -- about the way that reputations are formed, about the problems of dealing with the deaths of those who did real ill in the world and not wanting them sanitized, about sanctimoniousness, and many other things. I just don't think that the fact that someone else did it is the right standard -- whatever one thinks.

Incidentally, for a very thoughtful meditation on the problems of not speaking ill of the dead who have done ill, in our contemporary culture, go read the article linked to in the first link in this post, namely, this obituary for Breitbart by (conservative journalist) David Frum, which, it seems to me, quite thoughtfully grapples with the problem of writing about someone like Breitbart immediately after their death. Recommended even if (like myself) you have essentially no interest in Breitbart himself. (via))

(Update: On the specificity of Breitbart, in addition to Frum, I recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates's take too.)

* Yglesias has a particularly funny retort to a piece counter-nastiness lobbed in response to the above examples here.

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