Prince Philip and the Death of Decency

Somehow, the death of a public figure always seems to bring out the worst of people on social media.

Dr. Thomas J. West III
Apr 12 · 5 min read

As soon as I saw the news that Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, had died at age 99, I knew that it would be a mistake to log on to Twitter. However, since I’m something of a glutton for punishment — one might even say a masochist — I decided to do so, anyway. And, sure enough, it was full of the sort of toxic, disingenuous remarks about how glad people were that he had died, the expected trotting out of all of his infamous gaffes and racist remarks, and woke posturing that I’d expected. Even people that I respect swarmed in with their knives out, ready with what they no doubt thought were witty and cutting remarks about a dead 99-year old man.

None of this was surprising, even if it was still disgusting. When Philip was released from the hospital a few weeks ago after having had another health crisis, my Twitter and Instagram feeds were full of “clever” memes that poked fun at his skeletal appearance. Never mind that this was an elderly man who’d just endured a lengthy medical emergency; no, everyone had to compete to see who could make the most cutting remark, the most “hilarious” repurposing of the image. It was all in good fun, after all, and besides, he was a hugely problematic person who was part of a hugely problematic institution, so he was, apparently, fair game for the alleged wits that populate social media.

And, it’s worth pointing out, this contingent was the same group of people who practically fell over themselves to blast former First Lady Barbara Bush when she passed away. Remember the professor in California who made a point of being as aggressive as possible about Bush’s passing, only to double down amid criticism and say that her tenure rendered her immune from consequences? Or the similar outpouring of criticism and sneering that greeted the deaths of other conservative figures, including Nancy Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and John McCain. Time and again, we see how a particular social media contingent thinks that a death is the perfect time to engage in negative posturing rather than, I don’t know, taking a break from the virtue signaling for a hot second in order to acknowledge the loss of a human life.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that these public figures should be immune from criticism, or that their behavior should be excused or brushed under the rug. However, I do think that we can sheath our knives for a few days until the family has had time to grieve. Even if the person in question did some problematic or terrible things in their lives, they still have loved ones that are coping with their own grief, and it would no doubt make things easier for them if they didn’t have to worry about what the social media mob is saying.

Some of rampant negativity, of course, can be attributed to the nature of Twitter, which is one of the most toxic spaces on the internet and rewards the most inflammatory statements: the more aggressive and outlandish you can be, the more likes and retweets and comments you get. The more attention you receive, the more powerful and potent your personal and professional brand becomes. However, as my partner said to me as we were talking about this very issue, every person posting on Twitter is making a choice to go negative rather than, say, waiting for a few days or, heaven forbid, not saying anything at all.

More to the point, I would hope that the woke Twitter crowd — who typically leads the charge at these moments — would be a little more strategic in their outrage. It’s tempting to go after the low-hanging fruit, particularly when he dead can’t really speak for themselves. However, these people should be aware that choosing the moment after a person’s death is announced to launch a broadside against their least favorite public figures isn’t a particularly good look (in political parlance, it’s bad optics). What’s more, it gives conservatives yet more ammunition to paint progressives as being out of touch or willing to engage in trashing anyone that they don’t agree with. More pragmatically, if your goal is to increase awareness of that person’s shortcomings, do you honestly think that starting in right away is the best way to go about that? Maybe for those who occupy the same Twitter echo chamber as you do the answer is yes, but for those in the outside world it’s almost certainly a no.

This is particularly true in the case of Prince Philip. Yes, he was part of an institution that has come under increasing scrutiny — and rightly so — given how out-of-place it seems in the modern world. And yes, he was overly fond of the sorts of racist gaffes that are all too common among men of a certain age, both in Britain and in the United States. But he was also a human being, and he’s left behind a family, including his wife, to whom he was married for more than seven decades. Of course, I highly doubt that Elizabeth is on Twitter poring over what randos are saying about her husband’s passing, but that’s not really the point. The point is that when we say that it’s acceptable to spew bile about a recently-deceased person, even one as vexing and problematic as the late Duke of Edinburgh, we’re cheapening ourselves in the process, willfully ignoring and downplaying our shared humanity.

One would think that the left, given its penchant for morality and taking the high road, would be a little more sensitive to the niceties and rituals surrounding death and its aftermath. Unfortunately, of late it seems as if such respect is only to be accorded to those with whom one agrees. Every time that some conservative figure dies, I find myself hoping that this time things will be different, that the Twitter left will remember it’s own stated moral code, and each time I’m disappointed.

I guess I’ll just have to keep on hoping, even if I know that it’s probably in vain.

Reluctant Moderation

Politics that are Left of Center, Right of Radical

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