Nil Nisi Bonum de Mortuis – Do Not Speak Ill of the Dead

Posted by
flag of u s a standing near tomb
Photo by Sharefaith on

Mortui vivos docent is a Latin phrase etched into my mind. It means “The dead teach the living,” and it was the motto of the Latin, all-boys high school I attended for six years. The austerity of Roxbury Latin was not just carried out in the classroom, but was also scrawled across insignias almost everywhere you walked inside the school.


The motto came about to reflect the school’s interest in teaching the classics. Aristotle and Plato are not around any more to put up YouTube videos about their views in the same way that way that we might be able to access content by Ta-Nehisi Coates or Jordan Peterson. It was through many dead men and women that we were going to learn about life. It may seem ironic. But even then before forming into adult men, we were trusted to take information about these individuals and form our own opinions. There was no white-washing about who was good and bad: just the facts. Take what you will and learn from them.


Another Latin expression we learned back then was nil nisi bonum de mortuis – do not speak ill of the dead. Perhaps that is why I am particularly sensitive to see people react the way they do sometimes when people die. I was particularly disappointed and flummoxed by the way left-leaning individuals I know reacted to the death of John McCain. I am not in the business of Facebook arguments, but it was one of the few times I lost a “friend” – a former schoolteacher of mine at RL who would often infantilize me and accuse me of lacking empathy for not having the most extreme of left-wing viewpoints. It turns out I am not the one who lacks empathy. It is those who purport to know the worth of a dead man based on philosophical disagreement who lack empathy.


It’s important to make a distinction here. I’m not necessarily a proponent of nil nisi bonum de mortuis. I guess I am more of a proponent of nil nisi bonum de mortuis in the immediate aftermath of someone’s death, reserving the conversations about their legacy for a later date. Nowhere in this piece would I suggest that someone is wrong for raising justified questions about someone’s past.


So recently, I found myself angry once more with the way Kobe Bryant was treated mere minutes after the announcement of his death. When I first saw the news on Twitter, I couldn’t believe it. I was shell-shocked and devastated, and honestly, I wasn’t even particularly close to Kobe Bryant in any meaningful way, even as a fan of basketball. I don’t think it mattered. I still felt a keen sense of loss and heartbreak.


Most of the world agreed. It felt like there was a consensus that this was very bad news. All around the world, people paid tribute to Kobe Bryant in various ways. All except a select few.


In my twitter timeline, other messages percolated. One was a reminder from a friend that Kobe Bryant had a sexual assault charge dismissed in 2003. Considering that this same individual also accused my older brother of being a racist for making a joke about Donald Trump and the city of Queens that had absolutely nothing to do with race, I guess I can’t say I was totally surprised.


But then those same takes came in from Felicia Sonmez of the Washington Post and Ally Baird at Buzzfeed, who each re-tweeted a 2016 article about the rape case within an hour of the news of Kobe’s passing. Again, considering that these outlets seemingly treat dead terrorists better than dead NBA stars, it is not exactly surprising, but still infuriating. The only real surprise, I guess, is that they did not accuse Donald Trump of doing it in order to distract everybody from impeachment.


The Sonmez incident has been particularly weird. She sent out her tweet – seemingly of the belief that now, more than ever, was the time for her to make the most impact with her perspective on Kobe Bryant – and immediately faced backlash. It appeared as though 99% of people replying to her were quite angry. Later on, she doubled down, making herself the victim and screenshotting the angry death threats and emails she was receiving. She was suspended by The Washington Post and removed the tweets, and then she was un-suspended. Since then, she has been parading about how The Washington Post messed up and that she never did anything wrong.


I’m not here to write about her suspension. Deep down, I was happy to hear about the suspension because of how disappointing her behavior is to me. However, in the interest of intellectual consistency, I don’t like to see people get canceled or suspended for things, especially when it is due to outrage on the internet. That goes for Ms. Sonmez, it goes for Sarah Jeong when people dig up racist tweets she sent a long time ago, and yeah, I even extend that courtesy to people like Louis CK and Kevin Hart, comedians who have behaved inappropriately but for whom it is time to move on, in my estimation. That is what intellectual consistency is – you apply the standards you have to people you like and to people you don’t like, something that seems to be missing in our dialogue, for example, when someone like Megyn Kelly talks about blackface and then when someone like Justin Trudeau actually does blackface.


What I did want to talk about though is the insensitivity of reminding people of someone’s flaws in the moments after their death. I try pretty hard actually to avoid talking about sensitive topics and things like politics because I know that my professional network (including my customers and prospects) can see what I put out there. But I had to make an exception for this because I feel quite strongly about it. It’s not just that it’s disgusting, it’s really more that it is self-serving. I want to explain why.


Before I do that though, I need to make something clear. I am in no way condoning Kobe Bryant’s behavior. In fact, I believe he has a complicated legacy that merits a discussion. For various personal reasons, I am someone who takes the issue of sexual assault very seriously. And while the charges against Bryant were ultimately dismissed, it does not change that he more or less admitted guilt and that he was able to use his power and influence to extract himself from what would have otherwise been a difficult situation. Somewhere out there is a victim who probably did not get the justice she deserved.


Such is the problem with the way Sonmez and her few supporters defend the idea that it is OK to bring these things up in this exact moment. Their argument is that by not saying anything, we are collectively making it difficult for future victims to speak out about sexual assault. That by glorifying a man who (likely) did this terrible thing, we are denigrating victims of sexual abuse. What this seems to do, unfortunately, is make it so that you are a misogynist to disagree: if you do not recognize the importance of speaking ill of someone in the immediate moments after their death, then you support sexual abuse.


The reality is that both things can be true at the same time. It is possible to care deeply about sexual assault while also preserving the sanctity of dialogue about a human being immediately after they have died. It is possible for people to be sad about the loss of a human being who did a very bad thing. It is possible to be open to having that conversation about the bad thing when we are ready to do so.


This “cancel culture” type of behavior makes it so that any transgression anyone has performed in their life immediately disqualifies them from having any sort of positive legacy. It is actually probably the most smug phenomenon I have ever encountered, because the level to which it is carried about by its extremists makes it such that they could not have performed any transgressions themselves. Again, the reality is that every single one of us has said and done things that we regret. Most of us are fortunate that those things probably never come to light. But if every bad thing we have ever done was brought to light, we would probably no longer have eulogies. I don’t mean to sound dark here, but people are deeply flawed. The sooner we tried to put ourselves in other peoples’ shoes, the better.


I’ll give an example. I used to work with a lot of Mormons in my last company. They were very nice, but it did bother me that a couple of them would post anti-LGBT content on Facebook. My older brother is gay and I feel strongly in my advocacy for gay rights. At the time I was much younger and more apt to make snap judgments about other people. So my snap judgment at the time was that the religion as a whole was hateful. Today, I look at it differently. I ask myself a simple question. If I were in their shoes, would I be any different? If I were beat over the head about a religion from the day I was born, I imagine that I might never recover from that. Notwithstanding that what I had experienced were the opinions of a couple people. I never sought to understand how the rest of my coworkers felt about the LGBT community. The point here isn’t that I ended up condoning the problematic opinions of these couple people. The idea is that I understood how they got there. It didn’t mean I had to be their friend, but it also meant I didn’t have to write them off entirely.


The argument that is given by people like Sonmez and the few people I know who celebrated the death of John McCain is that you have a more captive audience in the wake of someone’s death in terms of dictating how that individual will be remembered. After all, this is the time where hagiographies are written, and it’s important for people to recognize the good and the bad before those hagiographies are truly set in stone.


Here is the thing about that, though. That explanation assumes that you know you are right about what you are trying to do to someone. For example, as it pertains to John McCain, a lot of what I witnessed is people who had philosophical disagreements with things that he had done. Those philosophical differences will never be resolved by a sole arbiter of truth. That is how life goes: we have disagreements with people along the way and we try our best to treat one another with respect regardless. In the lens of Kobe Bryant, Ms. Sonmez must have felt absolutely certain that he was a bad person who deserved to have a tarnished legacy. She also assumed that her opinion was one people cared about hearing, all the while as a wife mourned the loss of her husband and daughter and seven other innocents who had nothing to do with any of this died meaninglessly as well.


So let’s use another analogy to tackle this idea that immediacy is critical in getting a point across.


Let’s say that your mother hosts Thanksgiving every year for your family and friends. Everybody looks forward to it every year. Your mother is a saint – she spends all week doing all of the shopping, organizing, the cooking, hosting, and the cleaning. By and large, she does a very nice job. People seem to be happy with her performance. After all, they come back every year and have a smile on their face.


There’s just one problem, you think. The turkey is always dry. And the thing about that is that the turkey is your favorite part of the meal. It is really the main attraction in most Thanksgiving settings. You notice when you eat it every year based on the way that people chew that others might feel the same way. They decide not to say anything, though. Overall, they are grateful just to be invited, and your mom really does knock it out of the park in every other way.


So here’s the hypothetical question: what is the real-life likelihood that you would get up during the main entrée and announce to everyone that the turkey is dry? How likely is it that you would scold your mother? If she is to learn her lesson, wouldn’t now be the best time, the peak opportunity for embarrassment and revelation?


Of course the answer to this question is obvious. No one in their right mind would say anything. Presumably that is because we are told at a young age “If you’re not going to say anything nice, don’t say anything at all!” I think my more modern-day thinking about this idea is simple. If someone is an asshole to you, and you are an asshole in response, you are still an asshole, too.


Let’s think more about this hypothetical Thanksgiving feast. Everyone at the table has the same information as you. They can taste the turkey. They all have the capacity to form their own opinion about the affair. Maybe some of them will go home later that night, and in the privacy of their own homes, they will talk about the great time they had, but how they wish your mom did a better job with the turkey. It’s none of your business, really. But in some ways, you are infantilizing them by telling them how they ought to feel. They didn’t ask for your opinion, they probably don’t care much for it, and they have access to all of the same information as you in order to feel however they want to feel about how the day went. I may not be the best salesperson on the planet, but if there is one thing I know, it is that you do not get people to see things your way by telling them they should feel that way. In fact, this usually tends to have the exact opposite effect. People do not like being told how to feel and they generally will revolt when smug authoritarians tell them what to do.


Standing up at the table then is not really just an insult to your mother, but it’s also an insult to everyone around you. You are acting as though you know something they do not, even though they have access to all of the same information. You are implying that they might be dumb not to have reached the same conclusions as you. Most of all, in a moment where they are just trying to enjoy something, you are now just making it really awkward.


A Thanksgiving faux-pas is obviously not the same thing as a dismissed sexual assault charge, but the principle is the same. Almost everyone, it seemed, was mourning this tragic loss when a few of these bad apples were hell-bent on using it as a platform to get a point across. That kind of leads me to the other thing. What does it really accomplish? Are there really a lot of people out there who did not know about the complicated legacy of Kobe Bryant who learned something new with these tweets? If it was so important to make this point, why wait seventeen years? I suspect we know the answers to these questions. No, most people were already aware of what happened, and seemingly even more of them did not react well to having it foisted in their face while they were processing the loss. It makes you wonder then how much of this type of messaging is self-serving versus actually geared towards making a positive impact.


I think a natural question that comes next is whether this rule is truly universal. There are obviously people out there who have been evil by any objective standard. For example, you would imagine that the vast majority of people  believe Hitler was evil. Certainly I would not feel a need to bite my tongue if someone of his ilk perished. The difficult question though is “who is the arbiter of who is good and evil?” It’s not an easy question to answer, but I will try.


I think a pretty good rubric for understanding how to treat people in death is to see how others felt about that person. If more than 90% of people seem to agree that someone was evil, that person was probably evil. In the case of someone like Hitler, unfortunately there are people out there who would not find him evil. But that is much less than 10% of the population.


Sadly, I do not think in our current state of politics that people are equipped to give much benefit of the doubt. I personally am not a Donald Trump supporter and I find a lot of his actions to be harmful towards a lot of people. That being said, if someone assassinated him, I would be disturbed. And the harsh reality is that I have all the reason to believe that a lot of people I know would be dancing in the streets if that happened. In my 90/10 rule, Trump is nowhere close. We know quite literally that something like 48 or 49% of people in the United States voted for him. Again, I have a hard time empathizing with those individuals because it does not fit my view system to vote for Donald Trump, but that doesn’t mean I fight fire with fire by telling those people that they are stupid.


In defending his colleague at The Washington Post, Erik Wemple mentions that it is the job of journalists in trying times to mention the “warts” in peoples’ lives. He lists journalists and historians as the exceptions to the rule of nil nisi bonum de mortuis. I disagree with that assessment. It is the job of journalists to report on facts. When Kobe Bryant passed away, the facts that warranted reporting were about the who, what, when, where, and why. And while I do agree that journalists also write opinion pieces, I would suggest to Mr. Wemple that there is a level of tact to which those opinions can be rendered with consideration to the families of people who are involved. A throwaway tweet/reminder without explanation that Kobe Bryant did a bad thing feels more grounded in ensuring that we see Ms. Sonmez’s truth rather than our own.


How long then is the right amount of time to spur conversation about an individual’s legacy after they have died? I don’t know if I have an answer to that question. But it’s a legitimate question. People should be remembered for their full body of work, not just the good things. It is the only way we learn from the fragmented negative pieces of our history.


A piece that resonated with me was recently written in The Spectator by Douglas Murray called “Defend Your Friends.” The basic premise to the article is that cancel culture has gotten out of control and that it is up to the rest of us to defend the people who are being torn apart. He is right – the internet mobs have intimidated people enough to keep them from defending people that they like. I decided to take a risk here and take Mr. Murray’s advice. I hope it inspires others to do the same.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s