There’s an old saying: You don’t speak ill of the dead.
Of course, people use this phrase as an absolute, but it never is. There were no think pieces about Bin Laden painting him as a man devoted to his cause – even if we disagreed with that cause. There were no think pieces about the men responsible for Brussels and Paris. When a criminal gang shoots up another criminal gang, there is no outcry asking to be civil and speak well of them.
It’s interesting how we judge others so harshly for their personal feelings about the loss of a life based exclusively on our own personal feelings. The worst of it tends to fall on those that don’t abide by the niceties of speaking well of the dead.
We’ve seen this become especially relevant as divisive figures pass on in a time when more and more people have the freedom and ability to share their feelings, whatever they may be. The deaths of people like Rob Ford and Antonin Scalia, who lived their lives zealously supporting a way of life that does not benefit everyone equally, especially trigger enthusiastic and often uncivilized discourse between people saddened by his passing and those that are relieved.
People are not two dimensional, though. They have different facets and they show those facets when and where they choose. There is no one in the world that we know completely, maybe not even ourselves. We see what people want us to see and depending on who we are to that person, we will see a vastly different side of them than someone else.
So invariably we all mourn differently and for different things. We may well be mourning different people entirely without knowing it. Some see no reason to mourn the deaths of people like Ford and Scalia, citing the harmful political and legal decisions as well as rhetoric that has made their lives more difficult. Some know a kinder side, funnier side, or whatever else to the same person and mourn the loss of that. In an equal society, both of these feelings absolutely must be okay. A free society depends on our ability to differentiate between our personal feelings and a matter of public policy.
The thing that connects us more than anything else in this world is the love we feel for the people closest to us, so though I can’t bring myself to mourn the men themselves, I can empathize with those around them that saw a person they loved suffer, who will carry fond memories and what ifs for as long as they live. That is a difficult thing to do, no matter who you’re mourning.
But a free society must allow people to feel what they feel, and share those feelings in however way they see fit (so long as it is legal, of course). You can’t force someone to be sad for your loved ones just as they can’t force you to be sad for theirs. Personal memories of someone do not make the whole of that person. To mandate that people only speak well of the dead is to do a disservice to the complexity of that person, to the people left behind to deal with and understand that person’s legacy, and to history, which must remember things as they truly happened, rather than the sanitized way it is often recorded.
Our future relies on our ability to walk that fine line because our freedoms only matter if they’re present across the board, not just when we like it.