Defend Truth


Some thoughts on not speaking ill of the dead


Ismail Lagardien is a writer, columnist and political economist with extensive exposure and experience in global political economic affairs. He was educated at the London School of Economics, and holds a PhD in International Political Economy.

There’s a pitiful, a profoundly ideological, and simply duplicitous belief that one should not speak ill of the dead. If this were true, even slightly so, we may have to stop condemning the worst despots, dictators, and mass murderers after their death. We have seen this duplicity in the wake of Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s death.

I have no view on the life and times of Madikizela-Mandela that I wish to share beyond the fact that my interactions with her were professional. I was a reporter, in the 1980s, she was a highly significant political figure, we had several arguments and shared a few laughs, and only a single very brief “personal” discussion about her being exhausted and wishing she could take a walk in a park by herself. That’s it.

As in life, her death has exposed the ugly divisions in South African society. One resident in the shadow of Table Mountain suggested throwing a party under the rubric “the witch is dead”. That sentiment needs little clarification. Very many people focused only on Madikizela-Mandela’s prosocial attributes, and are seeking something akin to beatification. One discussion that might be useful is why there is a belief that one ought, necessarily, speak no ill of the dead.

At least four things prop up this belief that we should not speak ill of the dead, which I think is quite disingenuous.

One is the axiom that the living ought to focus only on the good things that the deceased had done. The other has to do with notions of solidarity (seeing only the good in people, living or dead, because they are “one of us”). It may also have to do with outright confabulation, selective retrieval or construction of (false) memories, and wilful forgetting. We should, also, not forget the way death and dying tugs at our emotions and sensibilities. We can look at these things separately, then bring them together to try to make some sense of the conflict around the legacy of Madikizela-Mandela. The only conclusion I can reach is that it really depends on who’s died, who comments or reports on the dead, and the relationships individuals or groups had with the now deceased.

There’s an axiom in Yiddish, one of the old cultures of eastern Europe I have always found most expressive: Akhre moys kdoyshim (“After death a person is holy”). I reference the Yiddish version because I have a soft spot for the culture; especially for the history of the 19th century shtetlekh in Eastern Europe and Russia. And anyway, of the Abrahamic religions, all of which have similar sentiments, this is the one I enjoy the most – to the extent that Yiddish is exclusively Jewish. I suspect it may be more complex than that.

The better known phrase in English – that one should not speak ill of the dead – was the version thrown at me, almost a decade ago, when I voiced criticism of Robert McNamara (former US Defence Secretary, who died in 2009), and of Richard Holbrooke (US Ambassador to UN, and later to Germany, who died in 2010). I remembered them for their roles in the United States’ war on the Vietnamese people, and McNamara’s almost callous approval of the “efficiency” with which, he explained, Washington, “burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo – men, women and children”.

McNamara was described, by David Rudenstine, a scholar of law – in an extract of his book, The Day the Presses Stopped: A History of the Pentagon Papers Case (now popularised in the movie, The Post) published by the New York Times, in 1996 – as “the war minister who ‘may have done more than any other individual to mould US policy in Vietnam’, and who many considered the ‘principal architect of the American intervention’.”

However, back among “his own people” McNamara was celebrated for his patriotism, and the way he faithfully served his country. As for Holbrooke, I raised his role in the war on the Vietnamese people, too. I pointed, moreover, to what CNN reported, in July 2008; that Holbrooke, had allegedly made a “deal” with war criminal, the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic in 1996. Karadzic said the “offer” made by Holbrooke, on behalf of the United States, required him to “become invisible long enough for the Dayton agreement to be implemented in full”.

On cue, Holbrooke denied that such a deal was made, and that Karadzic’s claim was a “flat out lie”. This can be expected in a world where “good” people can’t do “bad” things, and when some people are assumed to be eternally innocent. Anyway, in 2016, Karadzic was found guilty for his role in the Srebrenica Genocide of 1995.

The reason why I preferred to “speak ill” of McNamara was ideological. I don’t like violence, I think war is abhorrent, and, almost without fail, I tend to come out on the side of the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. I also have serious difficulties with patriotism, militarism and self-given notions of exceptionalism and abuse of power. There may be people who would oppose me on each of those.

Solidarity in Life and Death

Let me make a brief philosophical point (please bear with me). There is a tendency to shroud deceased public figures in cloaks of innocence, and their ideas as eternally valid. Both have to do with solidarity, and insider-outsider politics. Absent from this are at least two things, one of which is philosophical and the other historical. For example, if, say, a person wrote or said something, anything, 30 years ago, and we cling to it for eternity, we make two assumptions – blended into one. We assume that this person would not have expanded her/his knowledge and changed their mind.

We also get away with speaking on their behalf by virtue of the fact that they are no longer around to represent themselves. In varying degrees, we’re all guilty of this; that is why it is always safe to use past tense when we quote people who said or did something before they died. They are not around to speak for themselves and maybe, just maybe, they may have changed their minds or ideas. It’s always useful to bear this in mind.

So, if you ask most people in the USA what their view is on McNamara and Holbrooke, you might be told that they were patriots and loyal servants of their country. You might hear that they were great people who fought a great war against communism. According to US patriots, McNamara and Holbrooke were “one of us” and deserve our solidarity. And anyway, we should not speak ill of the dead. It depends on who’s dead, and who is speaking of the dead.

Seeing Only What We Want to See

During my brief career as a (rather average) reporter and news photographer, I covered a few cases where white men killed black farm labourers in terribly cruel ways. A particular one, it may have been in old Potchefstroom, a young (white) man was on trial, and found guilty of butchering (I seem to recall that he used a massive hunting knife) a black man to death, and towing his body behind a bakkie across fields. The killer’s mother was called in to testify. As may be expected, she spoke about how kind, gentle, harmless, humble and god-fearing her son was, and that it was impossible for him to have killed the black man. When the young man was found guilty, and sentenced, the mother collapsed in hysteria, charged from the courts in a rage of anger, snot and trane. I have photographs of the woman in pain.

The local white community were enraged. How dare anyone speak ill of the young man? What about his mother, a sad and hurt person? None of them spared a thought for the black man who had been killed in the most gruesome way. They indulged then in what we do today, a type of deliberate forgetting, that ignores bad things and focuses only on good things. Whether we call this inattentional blindness, confirmation bias, confaublation or simply disingenuity, it’s fair to say that we hold onto those (good) things that make us feel better about ourselves or of others.

Consider the example of Chuck Berry, the black musician who broke down racial barriers in the US, at a time of segregation. Berry would become, arguably, the biggest inspiration in the history of popular music and provided the template for almost all rock ‘n’ roll music for the next five or six decades. When he died, most people focused on his “evil” deeds. He was remembered as a tax-dodging voyeur, a pervert with a “penchant for underage girls” and generally “not a particularly nice guy”. All of which seemed somewhat racist. Again, it depends on who’s died, and who is commenting.

Finally, there is the tendency to adapt our ideas and conceptions of people after their death. In a study completed in the US about a decade ago, participants in an exercise were asked to evaluate people in photographs. A week later they were presented with the same photographs, but told that the person in one of the photographs had died the previous day. The results showed that participants adjusted their evaluations, and in the second test spoke favourably of the deceased. I’m not sure that I completely accept the results, but there is an argument to be made that we tend to focus on the prosocial qualities of a person, after death, and speak, therefore, only of their good qualities.

In most cases, there is always the understanding that it really depends on who has died, and who is allowed to speak. What has been apparent in the wake of Madikizela-Mandela’s death is that some of the very people who focus on the good things about her life would quite readily denounce Nelson Mandela as a “sellout” and a “traitor”. So much, then, for not speaking ill of the dead.

I happen to like the aboriginal Australian practice of never speaking the name of the dead. Then again, I’m not sure that will get us anywhere beyond our own shortcomings as human beings. DM


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