new rules on death

Many cultural rules are changing, but one that has proven particularly robust is the one that says we “mustn’t speak ill of the dead.”

And then along comes a piece in the Daily Telegraph by Stephen Pollard. Telegraph | Opinion | I can only speak ill of Sir Peter

Pollard lets fly:

“[Ustinov’s] politics were so vile, and his judgment so warped, that it beggars belief that his death should have been met with praise such as “great humanitarian”, “selfless” and “visionary”.

The cultural logic of the old rule is pretty clear. The dead are protected from criticism because, after all, they aren’t in a position to defend themselves. So attacks are cruel and mean. There is also a notion that says dying is actually the ultimate act of concession. For some reason, we find death mollifying. “Well, if you put it that way…” seems to be the spirit with which critics put down their weapons. I think there might be a third consideration. With death, a bell has sounded, we suspend all hostilities–as if death were the end of a rugby match. All is forgiven.

The cultural logic of the new rule comes from our general preference for full disclosure. We suppose that, generally speaking, the individual’s right to privacy is less important than the collectivity’s right to know. Private lives are part of the proposition, we seem to argue. We can’t really think about Foucault’s ideas, unless we know the appalling details of his private life.

Clearly, the argument is not always so grand as this. The gutter press reveals private details for the purposes of titilation. Grander institutions have a higher motive (we hope).

Pollard’s innovation (if it is an innovation), is, I think, a useful corrective against the addled “let us sing their praises” approach with which the dead are more usually remembered. After all, the obituary is a crucial moment of idea formation. (If it isn’t, we are we bothering?) How we remember someone is an important part of how we think about ourselves. I believe its true that the dead won’t mind, and the rest of us will think a little more clearly.

Here’s to Peter Ustinov, that bastard.

2 thoughts on “new rules on death

  1. Richard Oliver

    I think you will find that Pollard’s innovation is less of an innovation than you might think. I remember in 1989 reading an orbituary of Gerry Healy, a British Trotskyist, in one of our broadsheets – probably the Guardian – which was so viciously witty that it got me reading the obits to find out the stuff that got left out during peoples’ lifetime.

  2. abrahams

    Please: your description of turn-taking rules and of repair work are culturally and situationally skewed. Voice overlap and interlock are highly variable from one speech community to another. Situationally, scenes will vary in terms of interuptability, who gets to speak first, how interruptions are signalled, etc. I’m probably sermonizing the choir, here. But Erving and I had words on the subject and since this is his corner, I couldn’t resist waging the argument one more time. Though he was a Jew and from Moosejaw, at that, he had trouble with acknowledging that say, Native Americans, or African Americans, might have different rules of turn-taking, noise-production, kinesic and proxemic practices. etc. His response to such questions were “What are you momsers talking about.”

Comments are closed.