And I’m trying to figure out if I think it’s an irrational superstition, or a reasonable gesture of respect to people who are in mourning… or some combination of the two.
In the case of private individuals, it makes perfect sense. When people are mourning their Uncle Larry, they don’t want to hear about what an insufferable jerk he was. It would be trivializing their feelings of loss and grief.
But with public figures… it seems like the rules should be different. And yet, they’re clearly not. If we don’t personally know the person, and don’t even know anyone who knew the person… we still feel the taboo against speaking ill of them. Even if we found them repulsive at best and morally reprehensible at worst; even if we think it’s very likely that they were guilty of one of the worst crimes imaginable; even if, cutting them the greatest possible slack and taking them entirely at their own word about their actions, we still find those actions to be grossly inappropriate and unethical… even then, when a person has recently died, we tend to either say something nice, or not say anything at all. (That’s right… I’m talking about Richard Nixon.)
The only exception I can remember seeing is Spiro Agnew, who the press was merciless about when he died. I’m sure there have been others — I’m sure that when Stalin died, nobody outside the Soviet Union was writing gushing eulogies — but they are wildly few and far between. (And I strongly suspect that Agnew got slammed, not because he’d been so much more evil than any other dead person, but because he’d been such an insulting schmuck toward the press.)
And I’m trying to figure out if this taboo is reasonable.
I do get that people feel personally attached to public figures, even when they never met them. A little while back, I saw a blog headline that made me think, just for a few seconds, that Richard Dawkins had died. That he’d been murdered, actually. I was filled with shock and grief; despite the fact that I’d never met the man, I felt a deep sense of loss of someone very important to me who’d made a big impact in my life. And complicating my emotions was that fact that one of the people around at the time (we were travelling, and had some people around us we didn’t know very well) was a hard-core Christian who’d been making no bones about shoving her beliefs down everybody’s throat. The thought of having to go through my grief around this person who I didn’t trust to respect it made a terrible situation (or what would have been a terrible situation) much worse.
So there’s a part of me that really does get it.
But there’s also a part of me that thinks this is dishonest. And while I don’t actually treasure honesty as the single greatest virtue we have, while I do understand the social and even moral value of keeping your mouth shut from time to time… in this situation, there’s a part of me that’s greatly troubled by it.
If it’s a public figure who I just didn’t care for or find interesting, that’s one thing. I’m happy to keep my mouth shut. But if it’s a public figure who did serious and lasting harm to people — again, think Richard Nixon — it seems that lavishing unfiltered praise on them upon their death is insulting to the people they harmed. I get that we don’t want to be trivializing or callous about people’s grief when someone they care about dies. But I also don’t want to trivialize the damage done by said person… and I don’t want to be callous about the impotent outrage their victims must be feeling when they see the person who harmed them lavishly eulogized all over the world.
So I can’t figure this one out.