Thursday, December 12, 2013

Pause, Then Politicize

After Mandela died last week, Dave Weigel wrote an item telling people to "Go Ahead, Politicize Mandela"in response to some twitter requests to cut out the partisan sniping for a while.

I'm sympathetic to that point of view...but I also think there's an etiquette issue here, too, as I also said a while ago. And I think that for at least a short while -- a pause -- the etiquette issue deserves precedence over the politics.

Basically, it's polite to wait a short bit before jumping into partisan or other political point-scoring, and people should be polite.

I want to emphasize: short bit. I'm talking pause, not some sort of long-term ban. I agree that there's absolutely nothing wrong with using any event as an excuse to score partisan points or to press a political argument. Politics is important! Those who want to take action don't need to apologize for it.

However, etiquette tells us that we should act as if we respect the feelings of others, and of those feelings one would have to think that grief ranks pretty high up. Mourning is not in itself political, even if the person being mourned was intensely political; even if, as happens in some cases, the cause of death was intensely political. Those of us who live in a political world should remember that not everyone does, and that it may be particularly crass and hurtful to have to deal with that stuff along with one's grief.

I have no rule of thumb for how long a pause is appropriate. Certainly long enough that one's first encounter with, say, a natural disaster isn't going to be a slam at the president (or the Speaker, or whoever) for supposedly causing it. And certainly not so long that the media spotlight has moved on. I'm thinking hours, not days.

But yeah. Really, your Very Important Point about Ronald Reagan and Nelson Mandela could probably wait six hours, or even to the next day, without overly diminishing whatever positive effect you wanted to get out of it; you didn't need to post it on that first day. Even if you think it's outrageous that some conservatives could profess to be mourning Mandela without renouncing Reagan. There's plenty of time for that on the second day, or at least the fourth hour. The same applies to natural disasters, terrorist attacks, and whatever else sparks this kind of thing. You aren't going to be sacrificing any important political advantage if you hold off at least as long as it takes for the press to get the basic facts figured out.

After that, though? Absolutely have at it. After all, all of us live in a political world, whether we realize it or not, and after a point pretending that we all agree about everything ceases to be polite and is, instead, just condescending.

Where is the line? I don't think there's a hard-and-fast answer to that. It depends on the medium, on the occasion, on the tone...lots of stuff. The point is to balance two equally worthy things: the respect that mourning and grief deserve, and the virtue in action. Etiquette rules and norms generally help us get through tough calls in these areas, but we don't have much to help us (and certainly not on twitter), so we need to muddle through. Look: there are plenty of things I'd say about a colleague or acquaintance after she passed away to an outside friend who didn't know the deceased that I would never in a million years say to her family members at the funeral. Given that there are few recognized rules, all we can do is to try to be sensitive -- without shortchanging the rest of it.

So what I have is Pause, then Politicize. Okay?


  1. Regarding the length of a pause, I would just add that in the case of many sudden, unexpected events (unlike the death of Mandela, which is pretty straight forward), the press isn't going to get all the facts out in the first four or six hours. I would advise people to be cautious about taking an early, perhaps poorly thought-out stance based on facts that could soon turn out not to be true.

    1. Very much agree.

      What bothered me about the Mandela reaction was that it sounded (and I'm talking about twitter here, mainly) as if a whole bunch of liberals had been sitting on partisan points they had come up with back in May or June and just couldn't wait to deploy. Again, if it had been on the second day, no problem at all.

  2. The only issue I had was with politicians who has spent their political lives opposing Mandela and propping up the apartheid regime, crying crocodile tears on his death and talking about how great he was. I thought that needed to be pushed back against with force, but only those cases.

  3. JB, I know that your heart is in the right place. But, respectfully, that's not okay.

    Grieving isn't always political. But for some people, it is. And that's okay. It's okay for the family of a fallen soldier to say that he or she died fighting for freedom, even if other mourners disagree. It's okay for those who disagree to say so--not at the service itself, but publicly and, yes, immediately. Does anyone ask us to check if any of our troops or foreign civilians died in the last six hours before giving commentary on a war? If not, then "Pause, then politicize" seems to be a norm reserved only for important deaths.

    Sometimes people grieve by continuing the fight. Even small fights. My grandmother was very clear who wasn't welcome at my grandfather's service.

    Any time I've ever seen someone asked to put politics aside after a funeral, they have fallen into one of two categories.

    1) Mourners who express their grief through further commitment to the same cause that drove the deceased.

    2) Victims of the deceased, refusing to silence (or "pause") their criticism.

    I don't think either of those groups should take etiquette criticism seriously.

    Specifically, I don't think the people pointing out opposition by (some) conservatives to Mandela are primarily concerned with scoring a political advantage. To them, the opposition to Mandela from some quarters of Western countries is a significant part of his story. (I'm not an expert, maybe you could tell a story where the ANC received unified support from Western governments from the beginning but somehow Mandela's story unfolds in exactly the same way. But I doubt it.) It's not a matter of how many points they gain in the next election, it's a matter of the truth itself.

    Mourning is about memory. Memory is often political. Therefore you can't exclude politics without excluding some authentic mourning.

  4. I agree with Scott M. & JB on media reporting with this addition--there is an emotional weight to the facts as they are first presented, and that holds even with an expected death, because the moment when it becomes real is unknown and often unexpected. The reporting of facts and of expressions of grief by people the media covers--from notables to the public--usually drives the political expressions down the page (so to speak) so it tends to look cheap and opportunistic. Anyway that's how it used to work before the twittering classes.

    I'd make a couple of distinctions however. When people--especially family and friends--attempt to express what the deceased stood for, or what he/she may be remembered for--this is expected discourse even as part of the funeral service of anyone. It is usually more about intent and possible future judgment, as "he died for his country" or "she stood up for working people." There is a grace period in which these sorts of assertions are made and uncontested--part of letting the person have one more say. Family and close associates are given authority in this.

    Obviously there are people who get it wrong and start arguments. But that discussion used to wait until the person was buried. It's probably complicated in our instantagram world by the length of the mourning period in South Africa, before Mandela's body is laid to rest.


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