This is a response, and a very personal response, to the social media explosion that I have seen on my own timelines and datastreams since the death yesterday of Margaret Thatcher. I have my own political views, and these views will inform this response to an extent, but as a man that grew up in South Wales in a family supported for many years by the mining industry I’m sure you can guess what those views are. That these kind of views are being represented in the media as a footnote to the life of the former Prime Minister will be reflected upon in the conclusion to this post.
I’d like to concentrate on the idea of death in this post, and how one should react to death. As a phenomenologist and Heideggerian, death is normal and abnormal. The life of a human being is projected towards the inevitability of death, and the undeniable finality of existence as a human being in the world. This is what has happened to Margaret Thatcher, and indeed will happen to all of us (sorry Ray Kurzweil, it will). The reaction to the death of others, as human beings in the world that have to deal with such events on a daily basis, is in this instance the fascinating aspect. It seems there are two competing views on offer here – respect for the dead against a desire to debate the political influence of the person that has died.
In the mass media, this division can barely be felt. The British media is in full reverent mode, aligning opinion from the right of the political spectrum and seeing a quiet, tempered response from the left. To the extent to which these labels exist anymore in British political life, the media is perpetrating the age old political division through often presenting the two sides together, both eulogising the most divisive Prime Minister since the current one. The effect of this is realised through the tone of the programmes and the inherent attitude of the production: respect and reverence. The “right” eulogises its fallen leader, the “left” (vanquished 3 times in electoral battle by the great warrior) must nod in pious agreement and only allude to the huge ideological battles of the 1980’s, as a passing resentment to the great leader. The production is framing the mood: respect, reverence, solemnity. Any critique of the person must be made with the addendum that “on this day it is not appropriate to speak of the dead.”
Social media is not constrained by this editorial voice that pervades and shapes the coverage of the BBC, ITN, Sky and others. The user generated comments and posts on my Twitter and Facebook accounts still show the basic structure of the mass media presentation of the event of death though: reverence vs political (often pseudo-political) statement (there is a hilarious third position on Twitter, people that have no idea who Margaret Thatcher was). On social media, there is (as would be expected) comment that breaks the reverent stranglehold imposed in the mass media and that makes insulting, confrontational and angry remarks about the person that has died. The response to this forms what I see as a “be respectful to the dead” core notion that splits into other key notions on the person under this core idea. These other ideas are 1) support for Thatcher and her political ideology, often taking the form of “she did a lot of good for the country”; or 2) a kind of “won’t somebody please think of the children” type response where the identity of Thatcher as a mother and woman becomes the core of being respectful to her in death; or 3) a weird instinctive reaction to death that is exhibited in the ubiquity of #RIP and the idea that when someone dies there is a suspension of all criticism (or insulting) them for a period.
That social media mirrors the basic structure of the mass media in this case is not surprising, especially considering the polarising nature of the person that has died. The weird aspect of this is, for me, that death is considered an abnormality in the production of ideas and spread of coarse, insulting and non-respectful comments on Margaret Thatcher. People that didn’t know Thatcher personally, were never going to know her (and in some cases were too young to recall her as a public figure in Britain, so quick was her descent into shadow after the Matricide of 1990) are jumping to quickly try to restore some order to their timelines and datastreams with pleas to propriety and respect. Indeed, the idea that the young can have no opinion on the political legacy of Thatcher is continually spouted on Twitter as a way of belittling some opinions. I’m not sure if these people want to ban History in schools too, but it would seem a good course of action.
The prevailing dialectic is between expressing hate/joy at Thatcher (and her death) and the retention of some kind of reverential attitude to death itself – not necessarily Margaret Thatcher, but death itself. There are, of course, some that are celebrating the life, politics and achievements of Thatcher, and this is allowed (although heavily criticised also – see the responses to George Osbourne’s lament to his ideological hero) as to validate and celebrate does not break this taboo on death, only criticism is taboo. This seems highly problematic to me – in death, a person is freed from criticism and festooned in praise? Both are opinions (often as shaky and downright imbecilic as one another) and yet death only allows for the one side. Death as a phenomena is therefore (for many, not all) the closing down for an unspecified period of time of criticism and a period of celebration of perceived achievement.
In Britain, we see this all too readily in the figure of Princess Diana, dead for over 15 years and still venerated in the Daily Express as a latter day saint, with no mention of infidelity and a life of indulgent opulence in any media production houses. Yet we are happy not to have this attitude to death with other figures – see the recent coverage and social media reaction to the death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Here, the death of the democratically elected president of a country was met with innuendo over his perceived status as a dictator and figure of the political left. So, a further question can be asked. Is death, as the event that prevents criticism, only death on the right-wing or the privileged and politically advantaged in the UK? When will it be ok to criticise Thatcher again? Will it ever (as it seems the moratorium on criticism of Diana is everlasting)?
This question brings social media and the mass media back together nicely. We should not criticise Margaret Thatcher because she is dead. To do so is to disrespect death. The idea that death is something so powerful, so taboo and so painful is an effect of the mass media presentation of death as an event that must be met in a manner that is reverential, not critical – as long as that dead person was of a political and cultural position that suits an agenda that the mass media agrees with and propagates. This attitude filters itself back into social media discourses, where those that express their negative opinions are castigated both for having those opinions and for expressing them in a media where the expression of opinion is a currency.
So, what of death? Let me be clear on a few points: death is inevitable, it is not abnormal, its happening all the time and it will happen to you too. You’d better get used to it. One reading of the death of Margaret Thatcher is that the phenomena of death – the perfectly natural, unavoidable and inevitable occurrence of death – is utilised to stifle debate and consolidate the power of a neo-liberal status quo in the UK. More interesting is the idea that we have to be reverential in the face of the inevitable. Ok, I’m cutting my toenails later, show some damn respect you unfeeling scumbags! Maybe not. Much more interesting to me is that as a culture – and as a culture that now has all of us producing media – we are emotionally and intellectually incapable of dealing with the death of major figures in our society. The idea that a figure as powerful, divisive and downright important as Margaret Thatcher should not be debated on any day is ludicrous. That Thatcher is not debated daily is an indication of the infantilisation and political immaturity of the UK, particularly in a time of ideologically-driven social engineering by her intellectual heirs (although these heirs also are the intelectual runts-of-the-litter). The death of Margaret Thatcher has at least made people think and express opinions on politics, no matter how crude, insulting and “tasteless” they may be. The treatment of death as an phenomenon of unyielding reverence as opposed to a biological and humanistic inevitability is more problematic than any of this.
People die, stop treating it like it is the end of the world. Showing your respects is not the same as controlling debate, imposing conformity and obedience and marginalising those that are damaged on a daily basis by neo-liberal economics and ideas. Don’t let death shape the legacy of a woman who changed Britain for all its citizens, and who’s legacy courses through its current government like poison. Yes, Thatcher had a family and now she’s dead. Not one of those things is remarkable in itself. If you’d like to explore the fact that she was the first and to date only female prime minister then fine, go ahead – not particularly interesting without a serious debate into the nature of her femininity and attitude to feminism, which of course is insulting to the dead and “death” itself, yada, yada, yada.
Grow up Britain, this infantile fear of death is a death of critical engagement.