Dancing on Margaret Thatcher’s grave crossed the line of human decency

Rite & Reason: Vitriolic outbursts cannot harm the dead, but they have consequences for the living

Protesters outside the Comrades pub in the former coal mining village of Goldthorpe on the day of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral last week. Photograph: Nigel Roddis/Reuters

Protesters outside the Comrades pub in the former coal mining village of Goldthorpe on the day of Margaret Thatcher’s funeral last week. Photograph: Nigel Roddis/Reuters

Tue, Apr 23, 2013, 06:00

Speak well of the dead. Avoid denigrating them. They are not, after all, around to defend themselves. That was the upshot of the old Latin tag De mortuis nihil nisi bonum, which at its most literal means: “Of the dead, nothing except good.”

It’s not very long since that was more than simply a tag; a generation ago, it was a line in the sand, which one simply did not cross in polite conversation. The convention was that the silence of the dead should be matched by a silence among the living, regarding the shortcomings of those who are no longer with us.

Was this a form of denial a psychologically damaging ban on a healthy venting of emotions? Are we better off to let it all hang out and declare open season on the deficiencies of the dead?

Questions such as this have a particular pertinence when asked in the light of reactions to the recent death of former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher.

What is at issue here is not whether the death of such an influential political figure should prompt analysis of her actions and her legacy. Such analysis is both inevitable and healthy.

The practise of politics cannot but benefit from an awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of past politicians; the more influential they have been, the more trenchant will be the analysis of their legacy.

The question is whether, in examining and commenting on the legacy of deceased public figures, it is healthy to indulge in spleen-venting or vitriol. It may be that commentators and their commentary will be better served by the avoidance of comments of a personal nature.

Granted, the vast majority of professional commentators manage a separation of politics and personality. But how should they, and society, react to the kind of champagne-popping, dancing-on-the-grave vitriol we witnessed after the death of Margaret Thatcher?

Many of us might not wish to condone or share in the expression of delight at the death of any public figure. But the question remains as to whether such behaviour should be accepted as a normal human reaction, well within the parameters of decency.

Not all normal human reactions are decent. Large swathes of our civil and criminal codes are designed to curb and police behaviour arising from such normal phenomena as greed, envy and anger. A public expression of vitriol is not automatically sanitised by the fact that it can be regarded as understandable or normal.

It’s hardly conceivable – and hardly desirable – that the expression of negative emotions towards the dead should ever become the object of civil or criminal sanction. This does not, however, mean it is of no consequence to the health of society and of public discourse.

The dead cannot be harmed by the comments of the living. But the living can be shaped – for good and for ill – by the tone and content of their own comments. We may feel great revulsion for certain actions, but we cross a subtle line within ourselves if we dance on the grave of even a vicious criminal.

Instincts of hatred, vengefulness and vindictiveness lie within every person. Those who deny the presence of such instincts in themselves often end up projecting them on to others in a hateful, vengeful and vindictive way. When we give vent to those instincts, we do not let them out as opposed to bottling them up. Instead, we give them strength by giving them exercise.

It is not the abundance of legislation, but the unwritten social contract between men and women, that is the cornerstone of civil society. When we exercise ourselves in vindictiveness, or when we approve – even tacitly – such exercise, we are legitimating a behaviour that, to the extent that it becomes the norm, damages the fabric of society.

The benefits of public vitriolic outbursts are clear. They afford an instant, if short-term, emotional release to those who indulge in them. They make for “good” television and radio. They can increase the value of advertising in the slots closest to when they most frequently appear. But there is a downside, and it behoves us to give it careful consideration.

Our media may be tempted to lap up all that makes for striking image and strong comment, but the mainstreaming of vitriol is a sinister development. The death of influential leaders will always prompt analysis and reflection. Some of the more emotive reactions should also give pause for thought.


Dr Chris Hayden is a priest of the diocese of Ferns

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