Criticizing the Dead and Why We Should Do It

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Sir , English astronomer

Patrick Moore, English astronomer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A man who was held in high-regard by his peers and the public alike passed away recently. Patrick Moore, one of the most recognisable astronomers of our day, received tributes from people like physicist Brian Cox to the man on the street who’d grown up with Gamesmaster. To many he was an eccentric who worked tirelessly to encourage people to look to the skies and to bring scientific knowledge to a wider audience. He hosted The Sky at Night for over fifty years up until his death. He missed only one show in all that time. His contribution in this regard is immeasurable and irrefutable. Under the surface though, something more sinister simmered.

He was an incredibly sexist man. He claimed the BBC had been ruined by women and that television had gone PC by having woman commanders in shows like Star Trek. He suggested that there should be two channels, one for men and one for women, and that female news presenters were “jokey”. Women were not the only people he had disdain for. He also claimed that Britain had become “swamped by parasites” in reference to immigrants. He said that homosexuals were responsible for the spread of AIDs and trotted out the old cliche “the Garden of Eden is home to Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” (80 Not Out: The Autobiography p. 223). He was also xenophobic and held a distrust of the French (80 Not Out: The Autobiography p. 167) and hatred for the Germans till the day he died.

The interesting part of all this is that Moore made no attempt to hide his views. He openly admitted them in interviews and in his autobiography. His opinions were not uncovered through journalistic investigation or from a slip of the tongue. He was out and proud with his thoughts and felt no shame about them. So why do so few people know about it? The BBC always shrugged off criticism by saying that his forthright views were just part of his character. Upon his death, tributes poured in from all corners of the globe, but little mention was made of his unsavoury views. The question is, does a man’s positive contributions to society work to balance out his negatives? Is it right to gloss over the darker side of someone’s life and concentrate only on the good parts?

This is by no means a rare occurrence. Our history is littered with heroes and icons who have achieved great things, but at the same time done some abhorrent ones too. Over time the bad parts have fallen to the wayside and these people end up being viewed as those who could do no wrong. For example, in 2002, Sir Winston Churchill was voted the greatest Briton of all-time by the public. It was an unsurprising result. He was the man who led Britain through its darkest hour and who pushed us to fight tooth and nail against an oppressive and racist regime. On the other hand, should we really be so proud of a man who criticized Islam and Muslims, defended concentration camps and advocated the use of poisonous gas? Does his incredible leadership during World War Two allow us to celebrate him with such fervour?

Sir Winston Churchill (Wikimedia Commons/British Government)

One thing that needs to be considered are those who felt the negative effects of the people we end up celebrating. How do women feel knowing we look back fondly on the life of Patrick Moore? What about the descendants of those who died in South African concentration camps Churchill so vehemently supported? Is it not a huge insult to them to call him the greatest Britain ever? This leads us down the opposite road. To a place where one negative aspect wipes out someone’s positives. Is that not just as unacceptable? Would it have been fair to talk only of Moore’s views on immigration after his death, commenting sadly that his scientific achievements were overshadowed by his political opinions? Of course it wouldn’t. The problem lies the same on both sides of the coin.

It is a poor example to set to only look at one side of a person’s life once they are gone. It seems many articles are written with a narrative already in mind. Anything that doesn’t fit is barely mentioned or entirely omitted, helping to turn people more into a mythic legend than a real person. No matter how famous you are, you still have the same level of complexities as everyone else. This blog post detailing an encounter with Moore shows no sign of his sexism despite being in the presence of a woman. We are not simple creatures and we cannot be defined in black and white terms. Unfortunately, this is what happens when someone passes. They are this or that, but never a combination of the two.

It would be better if people were more willing to talk about a person’s life as a whole, warts and all. There is nothing wrong with mentioning someone’s faults when they die in the same way there is nothing wrong in admitting a bad person has done something good. The more we consider famous figures as real people, the better we understand them. From Moore I can still feed off his enthusiasm for space without wanting to kill a Kraut. From Churchill I can still be inspired to fight for what I think is right without wanting to gas dissenters. By knowing their faults I know them better. They are more real and through that their achievements seem within reach. They are not legends of old. We are all one of the same. What they can do I can do.

Wholly idolising or demonising a person is wrong. To learn from those before us we need the whole picture. Only then can we carry on their good work and halt the bad. Creating a legend of someone holds little purpose. To see them as they truly are helps us to see who we are. Imperfect, but capable of greatness. Just like everybody else.