Speaking Ill of the Dead

Pat Robertson isn't owed respect—or respectful silence—on the day of his death.

Pat Robertson, the evangelical leader who hated most of humanity, died today. He spent his career demonizing everyone who didn’t align with his narrow vision of Christian nationalism, blaming disfavored groups for natural disasters, defending genocidal dictators, and generally bending American conservatism and conservative politics towards ugliness and exclusion. His presence and his work made the world a worse place, and his legacy brought nothing of value. He should not be mourned or missed.

Nor should he be praised, or treated with the respect out of a misplaced sense that the dead are owed an “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all” deference. But saying as much is remarkably controversial. We’re told to not speak ill of the dead, and especially to not speak ill in the immediate aftermath of their death. Thus what I wrote above, on the day Robertson died, gets viewed as morally suspect. It’s perfectly reasonable to criticize someone who is no longer alive, but you just have to wait.

This strikes me as a very odd position to take, however. Especially as a blanket principle. There are times when a particular death is owed a period of respectful silence, but that obligation is situational. In the case of genuinely bad people, it’s quite clear we needn’t hold to it. Roughly, the rule ought to be that if it is permissible to harshly criticize someone when they are alive, or to do so some length of time after their death, it is permissible to criticize them on the day of their death—or in the week following, or during whatever period those who argue against speaking ill have in mind.

It is important to distinguish wishing suffering on someone from speaking ill of them. As I’ve argued elsewhere, we should wish that everyone—even our enemies—find happiness and freedom from suffering. The alternative, to hope that they are unhappy, entails cultivating mental states that bring greater suffering upon ourselves and do nothing to change the beliefs or behavior of those we dislike.

But “happiness” doesn’t mean “they’re enjoying themselves,” because you can enjoy behaviors for corrupt reasons, and some, such as Robertson, find (what they imagine to be) happiness in vicious hate and harm directed at others. “Happiness” motivated by ill-will, cruelty, and resentment isn’t happiness at all, but a kind of unrecognized suffering, and so wishing happiness for someone afflicted by that means hoping they recognize their bad motivations and ethical ignorance and change their ways in a healthier direction. Robertson clearly fell into this camp, even if he mistakenly believed he was acting in a Christian manner and in accord with Christ-like values. Having goodwill towards everyone—including Robertson—means a wish that they give up the hatred and delusion leading them to embrace ill-will, cruelty, and resentment. 

But not having ill-will towards someone is not the same as refraining from speaking ill of them. Honesty is a virtue, and an important part of helping others see their way out of the corrupt values of someone like Robertson is to openly discuss how and why they went wrong, to use them as examples of how not to be. This criticism isn’t ill-will because it isn’t motivated by a desire to inflict suffering, but instead a desire to see it end.

With that in mind, we can turn back to the question of timing. Robertson was a public figure, his death noted and discussed broadly, in major media outlets, on social media, and in casual conversation. It is a notable event, and so instead of being a time for silence, this is in fact a prime time to critique his failings, because it’s when people are most likely to pay attention to those critiques.

What’s more, I don’t think people actually believe the rule about refraining from speaking ill of the dead—certainly not in an absolute sense. Ask yourself, is there anyone I can imagine for whom this rule wouldn’t apply? Who was so evil by my assessment that it is perfectly permissible to point out their evil on the day of their death? Basically all of us could come up with a name or two, and so has a line, even if not an entirely clear one, over which it is okay to speak ill of the dead. The notion of a moral prohibition on doing so isn’t really about whether it is ever okay to criticize someone on the day of their death, but rather that the particulars of the criticism aren’t necessarily widely agreed upon. Lots of people sadly liked Pat Robertson and his beliefs. They feel the same bigotry and hate he did, and so criticizing him is criticizing them. But that some people will disagree with a moral judgment isn’t a reason to avoid making it, or to avoid articulating it. In fact, the presence of moral disagreement is a strong reason to discuss it.

Pat Robertson was, by any reasonable moral measure, a profoundly bad person. He embodied ill-will, cruelty, and resentment, and directed them outwards onto vulnerable groups. He sought to use social and political pressure to harm peaceful people, and he stirred up and encouraged destructive values among those who followed or were influenced by him. He added to the suffering in the world, and on the day of his death, we should all acknowledge that.

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