Julie Burchill

In praise of speaking ill of the dead

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There’s quite a few writers who are sensitive souls, and the worst are those who like to dish it out but reach for the smelling salts and swoon when anyone so much as gives them a funny look.

Luckily I was born with the Sensitivity Gene missing, especially when it comes to dissing, and I find that like with gifts, I’d just as soon receive than give. Say nasty things behind my back, to my face – or both ways in bed – and not only will I not get upset but I’ll derive a mild kick from it. Just a little one, mind you – I’m not kinky!

I’ve had a bunch of feuds - Tony Parsons (‘Looks like a dying rhesus monkey’), Martin Amis (‘A little man in every way it is possible for a man to be little’), and Camille Paglia (‘F*** off you crazy old dyke!’) The last one was admittedly a low blow, but I like to think I was cut down to size by afterwards becoming – however briefly – a crazy old dyke myself. And you must admit that what they lack in levity they certainly make up for in brevity.

So I’ve dissed everyone from ex-husbands to ex-heroes but sadly I’ve never had a feud with a fresh corpse – though the cadaver in question being that of Karl Lagerfeld, I’d hazard that it’s fresh in the way a bag of beef jerky is just before its best-by date. This honor goes to Jameela Jamil, who I’ve only been vaguely aware of till now as one of those pretty girls who starts out as a presenter on TV pop shows and goes on to be an Insta-influencer banging on about world poverty and climate change while plugging scented candles called things like Loving at fifty quid a throw. But Miss Jamil is made of sterner – literally – stuff. No sooner was Karl stuffed into his casket and the tributes of the anorexic jet-set gushing in than she tweeted that the latest celebrity stiff was in fact ‘a racist, misogynistic, fat-phobic rape apologist who shouldn’t be posted all over the internet as a saint gone-too-soon.’

Good for her! There’s a lot to be said for speaking ill of the dead. It’s a good corrective to the laws which make libel a rich man’s hobby. It’s a bracing palate cleanser during the sugary deluge of tributes insisting tremulously that there’s another twinkling star in Heaven tonight no matter how dodgy the character. This is a phenomenon which my husband, with admirable masculine brusqueness, calls ‘tearleading’ – large groups of people getting together on social media to competitively mourn dead celebrities. You know how dogs always start each other off – first one barks itself daft, then they all do? Facebook is like that about death – the hounds of grief combined with a cat’s chorus. And I won’t even start on the hearse-chasing circle-jerk that is Twitter.

I believe that people should be allowed to say anything they like about anyone online – except for accusing them of criminal acts without proof, or for threatening criminal acts against them. I believe also that trolls who do not write under their real names very much degrade the level of public slanging matches and, if they are so keen on being fictional characters, should have their voting rights removed for an allotted period of time in order to teach them that the immeasurable benefit of free speech has solemn responsibilities as well as cheap thrills. And to punish them for being cowards.

But I believe that our aim should not be to pursue a policy of ridding cyberspace of trolls – it can never be accomplished, and the police have far more important things to do – but to make people in general and young women in particular utterly immune to it. If strong fences make good neighbors then strong defenses make good citizens. By placing the emphasis on making bullies stop bullying rather than encouraging the bullied to toughen up to the point where the bullies give up because they’re no longer getting the response (fear, outrage, sorrow) they want, we are still dependent for our happiness on the unkindness or kindness of strangers – and this is to build our self-esteem on the most shifting of sand, in the present or posthumously. Lagerfeld’s touchy Tearleaders should thank Ms Jamil for teaching them this timely bit of tough love.