A the wise words of a colleague jumped on me last Friday: “Remember, it’s okay to cry about imperfect people,” she tweeted. Why do we seem so often unable to muster the same kind of generosity of spirit when it comes to the living, I wondered?
It follows the deaths on the same day of two very different men: Queen Elizabeth’s husband Prince Philip and American rapper DMX. Yet they had something in common: both were, to use a popular term, “problematic” because of what they said or did.
The weaknesses of the two were discussed, but they were celebrated more for what they accomplished than chastised for what they went wrong. The same kind of forgiveness attitude can be seen in many comments on novelist Philip Roth, which a new biography describes in a way some saw as proof that he was a misogynist. Editorials criticizing Roth’s alleged posthumous attempts to “quash” have appeared in various UK media outlets. Yet they seemed to be targeting a straw man: I find little evidence of such a campaign.
Back in the land of the living, it’s a whole different matter. We can discuss whether or not the culture of cancellation exists. But what surely cannot be disputed is that we live in a world of moral absolutism and censorship, at least online, in which many fear doing or saying something that is deemed irrelevant.
Why are we so often ruthless to each other when we are alive, while forgiving the deceased? Shadi Hamid, senior researcher at the Brookings Institution, suggests that this may in part be explained by our increasingly secular societies. In the past, we would have believed that those who broke our moral code would be sufficiently punished in the Hereafter. But, as belief in God wanes, and the idea of eternal suffering that accompanies it, many seem to feel some sort of duty to ensure that sinners face retribution in this lifetime.
“Religion, in theory, allows us to defer judgments until the next life, but if you have some kind of approach to the things of this world, it’s all about the now,” Hamid tells me. “You cannot postpone judgment because there is really nothing after this world, there is no sort of larger metaphysical reality.”
Some may have little qualms about removing statues and stained glass windows of historical figures now deemed unacceptable. After all, it can be hard to feel a lot of emotion about someone who died in the 18th century, for example. Yet when someone dies today, our compassionate and empathetic instincts tend to trump any desire to judge them.
“There is something powerful, visceral, sacred, and mentally altering about death,” says Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the Stern School of Business at New York University. “Most cultures have notions of ‘pollution by death’ or taboos around speaking ill of the dead. So it’s only fitting that the death of a public figure – especially a leader or figurehead – puts most people in a more respectful mood.
There’s also the fact that once someone is dead they lose their power and we usually lose the urge to knock them off their perch. Social psychologist Debra Mashek compares this to how presidents’ approval ratings tend to soar after they are no longer in office, suggesting that “once the person is no longer seen as capable of you doing harm, it becomes more tolerable ”.
Ironically, in our current hierarchy of moral transgressions, even reporting controversies following someone’s death seems to be viewed as more serious than the shortcomings themselves. Washington Post reporter Felicia Sonmez was suspended last year for tweeting an article containing details of an alleged sexual assault by Kobe Bryant in 2003, within hours of his death. Shortly after being posted on Twitter, Sonmez was put on leave. “A real lack of judgment to tweet that,” the editor wrote to him. “Please stop. You are hurting this institution by doing this.”
Ultimately, humans are complicated, messy, and hypocritical beings, with as many bad bits in them as there are good ones. We would all be happier, it seems to me, if we learned to accept – or even celebrate – each other before reaching the grave. It seems a shame to reserve redemption for the dead.