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.
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.
So I can’t figure this one out.