WHEN IT COMES to writing about the recently deceased, we Irish seem to adopt the approach, if you have nothing good to say, say nothing. But is this the way to properly mark the passing of someone, either loved or loathed? What should go into an obituary and why?
This dilemma was best exemplified when President Higgins described Castro as a “Giant among global leaders”. He took a view, shared by Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, that Castro’s life and achievements were to be praised, not vilified.
Castro, according to President Higgins, “guided the country through a remarkable process of social and political change, advocating a development path that was unique and determined independently.”
Further on, his only explicit nod to oppression was the following line: “The economic and social reforms introduced were at the price of a restriction of civil society, which brought its critics.” It was this line that caught the attention of the political class. Fianna Fáil thought the statement should have been “more balanced”.
An independent senator attacked “a complimentary statement about a man that many Irish people would find repugnant.” The President had to send out his spokesman to clarify his remarks.
What was wrong with that statement?
Like any communication, you need to know your audience before you start writing and be clear on what your objective is.
President Higgins clearly admired Castro from a political point of view. But he is President of Ireland.
In his statement of 10 paragraphs, just one line covered darker areas like human rights abuses.
Was this objective the right one for our Head of State?
This was a question those close to Justin Trudeau pondered at the same time.
The cack-handed wording and rationale of Trudeau’s statement, (“While a controversial figure, both Mr Castro’s supporters and detractors recognised his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for ‘el Comandante’”) lead to a twitter storm of #TrudeauEulogies.
Pol Pot, Hitler, Stalin, Darth Vader and others were all given positive eulogies in a similar style by a gleeful Twitterati. Trudeau, according to The New York Times: “generated the kind of social media blowback to which the telegenic…..Prime Minister is rarely subjected.”
Trudeau had good personal reasons to call Castro a “Remarkable Leader”. Trudeau’s father was a friend of Castro. Castro had served as an honorary pallbearer at his funeral. And allowing that to dominate his thinking when drafting the statement was the problem.
Speaking ill of the dead
In Ireland, we place great emphasis on respecting the newly dead, whatever their sins.
We have an entire literary genre of tension-filled funeral dramas. Think of anything John B Keane wrote. De Valera famously offered his condolences to the Germans after the war on the death of Hitler.
This was despite the emergence of details of the concentration camps and the fact that he would have invaded us in a heartbeat if it suited. So, should we look hard at this reflex to blindly honour the dead in our obituaries and statements?
Can our leaders write statements that are accurate and objective?
Ann Roe, obituaries editor with The Economist, has spoken about writing an obituary “from their (the deceased’s) point of view”. This means looking at the good and the bad sides. Below is the first paragraph of an obituary she wrote in 2011.
“When he gave interviews to foreign journalists, which he did rarely, he had a way of looking down at his hands. This, and his soft, slightly raspy voice, and his gentle eyes, as well as the fact that he allowed no instantaneous translation, helped conceal what he was saying: that it was the duty of all Muslims to kill unbelievers, especially Americans.”
The man with the soft voice was Osama Bin Laden. The Economist received criticism for this obituary, which included references to how he was with his children and how he liked to relax. If we are to see an obituary or eulogy as an honest statement, it needs to show both sides.
Trudeau’s statement was that of a son mourning his late father’s friend, not of Canadian PM speaking on behalf of his country. Neither Canada’s statement nor Ireland’s mentioned the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Never criticising dead public figures
We are not a people inclined to criticise our dead public figures. President Higgins reflected that in his statement, albeit to the point of giving enough to the politically ambitious to query his tone and force a clarification.
Perhaps the next time he drafts such a statement, he’ll require more than one line to reflect the reality of any political or human life, failure, moral ambiguity and moments of weakness. And he need not be blunt.
There’s a wealth of phrases that say one thing but mean another. The Times of London used the phrase “a bon viveur” to indicate alcoholism. “Survived by his mother” was a code for homosexuality. “Did not suffer fools” really meant a domineering tyrant. And “devoted to his wife” suggested that the deceased rutted around town like an old goat, such was his devotion.
With two wives, numerous affairs and 11 children by 4 different women, that one might have suited Castro perfectly.
Barry McLoughlin is a Senior Training Consultant with The Communications Clinic. He advises clients on communications and media strategy. He has worked with the Communications Clinic since 2011 and previously worked as a solicitor for a number of years.