A man dies, and I don’t know how to react
Earlier this week, Duane T. Gish died at the age of 92. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, he was a vocal Young Earth Creationist whose distinctive rapidfire debating style inspired the coining of the term “Gish Gallop“.
He was an old man, and he’s dead. That saddens me, just as any death would, but apart from that, I don’t know how to feel. I’m not someone who takes pleasure in people dying – I was the sort of wet liberal hanky-squeezer who felt uncomfortable at the celebrations when Osama bin Laden was killed. But for all that, I feel a bit odd about this.
There’s a strong temptation to simply say nice things about people when they die, but while that’s polite and respectful, it can also tend towards humbug and flannel. A classic example is the way politicians can go from angrily attacking each other’s intelligence and honesty to speaking movingly about what good people they were. It may be polite, but it’s also a little insulting to everyone’s intelligence.
For most of us, it’s easiest just to follow the advice of Thumper’s parents in Bambi – “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say nothing at all.” But there are some people who are more or less expected to say something, because of their connection to the deceased. Michael Shermer, who has debated with Gish in the past, found a neat approach:
I like the solution of distinguishing his views from his personal nature, and Shermer’s in a much better place than me to know whether he was a good man. But Gish’s fame and his entire career were based on being an enemy of knowledge and understanding, and employing a deliberately dishonest and obstructive debating technique.
Gish may be a very nice man in private, but his fame, and the reason why his death is noteworthy, is entirely down to his public persona. So why should his private behaviour or personal niceness be dragged into it, except to find a way of saying something pleasant and positive about him? And is that a good enough reason?
Through all this, the emotional, sympathetic part of my brain is saying that it doesn’t hurt anyone to be generous to the dead, while the logical, rational part insists that’s no excuse for going out of your way to say things that are untrue or irrelevant. Meanwhile, the rest of my brain’s sitting in a corner, looking bored, asking why I need to get involved at all.
Death is sad, it isn’t the time to stick the boot in, and I’m happy to either emphasise the positives as much as I can or simply remain silent, but I’m uncomfortable with that straying into dishonesty, even by omission. That means there’s always going to be an uncomfortable tension in my thoughts and opinions, but I suppose I’m used to living with that.
Image courtesy of Ashcraft, used under Creative Commons Attribution License 3.0