The newest (and last 2008) New Yorker came in today’s mail and in it a posthumous piece by Mark Twain, aptly titled The Privilege of the Grave. What is the privilege you might ask? In short it is the fact the dead can say pretty much anything they well please. Mr. Clemens writes:
“Its occupant has one privilege which is not exercised by any living person: free speech. The living man is not really without this privilege…he possesses it merely as an empty formality, and knows better than to make use of it…”
Actually, Twain was pretty vocal in his time, though he at times spoke his thoughts but didn’t necessarily want them printed (see post here.) And just why wouldn’t we want to voice our opinion? Simply put, “none of us likes to be hated, none of us likes to be shunned.” And so he says:
“…We consciously or unconsciously pay more attention to tuning our opinions to our neighbor’s pitch and preserving his approval than we do to examining the opinions searchingly and seeing to it that they are right and sound. This custom naturally produces another result: public opinion being born and reared on this plan, it is not opinion at all, it is merely policy….”
Since the dead can’t offend:
“Free speech is the privilege of the dead, the monopoly of the dead. They can speak their honest minds without offending. We have charity for what the dead say. We may disapprove of what they say, but we do not insult them, we do not revile them, as knowing they cannot now defend themselves….
….[so that people might know just what we think] Why not put these things in our diaries, instead of so discreetly leaving them out? Why not put them in, and leave the diaries behind, for our friends to read? For free speech is a desirable thing. I felt in it in London, five years ago, when Boer sympathizers – respectable men, taxpayers, good citizens, and as much entitled to their opinions as were any other citizens – were mobbed at their meetings, and their speakers maltreated and driven from the platform by other citizens who differed from them in opinion. I have felt it in America when we have mobbed meetings and battered the speakers…. Sometimes my feelings are so hot that I have to take the pen and pout them out on paper…..then all that ink and labor are wasted, because I can’t print the result….[for] the trouble it would make for me and the family.”
Interesting thoughts. Though I don’t quite think we – and I boldly speak for all of us – would be able to (with all due respect to the dead) agree with him, dead or alive.