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Speaking freely of the dead

The death of The Australian’s controversial cartoonist Bill Leak yesterday provoked a storm of polarised emotion on Twitter, as colleagues expressed their shock and sorrow, and representatives of groups Leak humiliated and ridiculed in his work refused to abide by the rules of what was referred to as “common decency and good manners.”

These rules apparently require one to be silent if there’s nothing nice one can say, especially at a time of death and bereavement. The irony was lost on no one in the latter groups, and practically everyone in the former: Leak himself blatantly despised common decency and good manners, and earned his living giving those niceties the finger in the name of free speech.

In his later work, the cartoonist lampooned LGBTQI people, Muslims, the Safe Schools program, Indigenous people, the Human Rights Commission and its head Gillian Triggs. Because of these cartoons, he is lauded by admirers as an outstanding proponent of free speech.

Action was brought against him under the now infamous Section 18C, on the grounds of offence he caused to Aboriginals with a particularly patronising and sneeringly vitriolic cartoon. The case was eventually dropped.

A life has many stages, and those who knew Leak in earlier days, as well as those whose political ideologies he supported, are naturally grieving his unexpected death. Yet as so often happens in death, little acknowledgement is made of the dark side of the deceased, provoking outrage in those who’ve suffered the racism and marginalisation so evident in his later work, and who, equally naturally, feel no loss at his passing.

The efforts by the former to silence the latter were something to behold. Here’s one example, from former PM Tony Abbott’s sister, Christine:

I’ll leave you to deconstruct that example of conservative hyperbole in which criticism is conflated with assassination and beheadings. Clearly Ms Foster does not advocate unfettered free speech by Mr Leak’s critics, while staunchly defending her right and his to express whatever opinions they like in whatever manner they choose.

Of course the accusation that you are not observing “common decency and good manners” is an accusation intended to shame, as is the call for you to “respect” the dead, implying that you don’t have the class to know how to behave in such a situation and someone who does has to tell you.

This latter is a demand I’ve never entirely understood: why am I required to “respect” someone simply because they’ve died?

The reactions to Leak’s death on Twitter yesterday were a microcosmic example of class and privilege setting its sights against anyone who refutes the worship of its idols, using the same tools of contempt, ridicule, shaming and humiliation to achieve silencing as were employed by the idol in his later years.

It seems obvious to me that anyone has the right to speak freely of their relationship with and opinion of a dead man or woman. I can see no reason why those who admired Leak should castigate those who did not for failing to engage in hypocrisy. The idea that death eradicates the hurt and damage any individual might have inflicted on others in their lifetime is ludicrous, as is the demand that we feel sympathy purely on the basis of death. The evil that men [sic] do lives after them.

Common decency is a fluid concept, determined by what suits the ruling classes rather than the commons at any particular moment. Good manners are things I tried to teach my dog.

Respect, I would argue, is sharing space with views different from our own, and not shaming or silencing others because of that difference. It is, in my opinion, perfectly fine for those who do not view Bill Leak with fondness to say so. It is domineering and deceitful for his supporters to fail to acknowledge the legitimacy of those opposing views.

Free speech is for everyone, not just the privileged establishment, and it is everyone’s right to point out when (and which) emperor has no clothes.

Funny how so many simply do not get that.

This article was originally published on No Place For Sheep.



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  1. Rossleigh

    There is an argument for “common decency and good taste”, but unfortunately, when it comes to so many areas, people get told that it’s just political correctness and that it’s stifling free speech.
    And, as you point out, there is an irony in those who are such staunch advocates of being allowed to say whatever they choose, complaining because others decide to exercise the same “right”!

  2. Mark Needham

    ” It is, in my opinion, perfectly fine for those who do not view Bill Leak with fondness to say so. It is domineering and deceitful for his supporters to fail to acknowledge the legitimacy of those opposing views.”

    But when I said that, I did not like Adam Goodes, I was called a racist.

    Shaking head,
    Mark Needham

  3. Michael

    Bill had a magnifying effect – how close he came to the “truth nerve” is for each of us to figure out – at a later date would it be possible to explore the parameters of “taking the p*ss”?

  4. kerri

    Thank you Jennifer Wilson for challenging the long held belief that we must not speak ill of the dead.
    When the Chaser televised their eulogy to people who had been glorified in death they went a little far on some but were spot on on many!
    As a secondary teacher, a tragic event occurred when a student suffered a cerebral haemorrhage after a playground incident and died that night. It was sad. It was tragic. It should not have happened but!!!
    The glorifying if this kid, after the fact, that we had all had meetings about, basically because he was a little shit (and old enough to know better) made me sick to my stomach!
    Leak was an asshole on many occasions and gave no apology for being so!
    Hopefully Pickering will soon join him!
    Maybe this foolish belief in not speaking ill etc stems from belief in the invisible man?
    You know the twisted logic that declares Only the good die young! God needs them!
    If God needed Leak, he can have him and several other assholes to boot.

  5. Roscoe

    just who is paying for the Rabbott’s world adventures, why is he flying around the world instead of being at work in parliament representing his constituents?
    Abbott has taken time out from his European tour to pen a short piece on Bill Leak for The Australian.

    Bill Leak was a free spirit committed to the truth
    The Australian March 11, 2017…/b3be42240379915135bb8ea69…

    Currently in London after stops in Poland, France and Belgium you can keep up to date on Abbott’s European odyssey on his twitter and facebook pages.

  6. Roscoe

    just who is paying for the Rabbott’s world adventures, why is he flying around the world instead of being at work in parliament representing his constituents?
    Abbott has taken time out from his European tour to pen a short piece on Bill Leak for The Australian.

    Bill Leak was a free spirit committed to the truth
    The Australian March 11, 2017…/b3be42240379915135bb8ea69…

    Currently in London after stops in Poland, France and Belgium you can keep up to date on Abbott’s European odyssey on his twitter and facebook pages.

  7. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Normally, I too would prefer not to say something that could be construed as speaking bad of the dead.

    However, Bill Leak’s death has allowed me to re-evaluate.

    Bill Leak did not pause to consider the hurt some of his cartoons would cause particular groups in our society. He may have had deep centred, philosophical thoughts in expressing those views but his cartoon products equated to more than just his views. They generalised entire demographics with the same, demeaning stamp.

    It is even more obnoxious to me to realise that such contempt for whole groups of people can be denigrated by one so privileged and exorbitantly paid as Bill Leak was.

    Unfortunately, despite Bill Leak’s possible earlier promises of fineness, he allowed himself to succumb to the excessive self-confirmation of privilege.

    Let it be a very timely lesson to other would-be idealogues, who think their actions are above complaint and criticism. I include all MSM journos, who are exploiting their positions and sailing high on the waves now.

    That won’t always be the case.

  8. Peter F

    IF we want to see the heights to which Bill Leak might have aspired, we need look no further than John Clarke and Brian Dawe.

    The contrast says it all,……. as their work usually does.

  9. Wayne Turner

    I see it this way: “It’s ok to speak ill of the dead,but ONLY if you had the GUTS to speak ill of them when they were living”.

  10. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Fair enough too, Wayne Turner. I did …

    … and I might add that I intend to do so for every other public figure or official who will abuse their position to compromise, devalue and undermine the rest of us.

  11. Florence nee Fedup

    What I don’t understand, what was the point of Leak’s cartoons. The one referred to the Human Rights Commissioner.

    How was irt seen as being in the public interest>

    In my former life I did deal with parents as bad as one portrayed. Most happened to have Aussie accent and white skin,

  12. paulwalter

    A dozen postings already?

    Peter F and JMS for mind.

    I sense a fleeting fancy.

    Could it not have been be Murdoch and Turnbull had journeyed with him?

  13. stephengb2014

    It seems that there are a number of supporters of Bill Leaks work who are blatently saying that Gillian Triggs is totally responsible for his death, indeed anouncing the she has his blood on her hands!

    The hypocrisy of these people is beyond belief.

  14. Roswell

    But when I said that, I did not like Adam Goodes, I was called a racist.

    Someone once wrote here (it could have even been me) that they booed Adam Goodes once, and it was met with howls of disapproval. Most racist act in living memory, apparently.

    It was pointed out by the writer that they actually liked Adam Goodes and that it was not uncommon to boo an opposition player.

    But back to Bill Leak … I despised him.

  15. cartoonmick

    IMHO, in a reasonably minded society, free speech should only be governed by common decency. We all have opinions and should be free to express them in a decent manner.

    Unfortunately, a minority feel it is essential to be verbally robust and, not only try to ram their opinion down the throat of those who dare to disagree, but to malign the owners of those disagreeable opinions. And many of them do it with bile.

    But, it’s a free world, and if that’s how they wish to behave, then so be it.

    I knew Bill. I did not always agree with, or like, his cartoons. But a lot of them were very good. He was paid to produce editorial comment in cartoon form, to promote discussion on topical subjects. And that’s what he did. And it seems he did it very well, if reaction in social media is any indication.

    And, at the risk of attracting attention from some verbally robust people, I’ll risk saying this last para:-

    Bill’s cartoons did not necessarily reflect his character or personality. A common mistake people make. He was a nice and generous person, as well as being very talented. (this, from personal experience).


  16. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Fair enough Mick,

    but you might also agree Bill profited from an over-valued salary for under-worthy work objectives.

    Leak should have kept his scruples.

  17. zoltan balint

    Dear Jennifer – there is money in being controversial and Leak knew it. Look at all the shock jocks. A reporter that spends months researching a subject before penning a word and trying to sell their work compared to someone like Leak who knew that the money will come from NOT the people who like what he said but who will object to his rantings or objectification and steraetification of a minority. Even in his death this lives on. His saving grace is he could draw.

  18. Matters Not

    Not a post I would’ve made at this time. Surely we can be better than Leak and his supporters.

  19. helvityni

    When you are dead, you are dead: let’s treat the LIVING better, that’s when it matters. That’s what Gillian Triggs wants, and so do I…

  20. helvityni

    Be nice to people when you are still alive, and no one will say a bad word about you when you are dead.

  21. silkworm

    When is his funeral being held?

  22. zoltan balint

    Very idealistic Helvityni. These days being nice you better put your wallet in your underpants with an iron cage and a lock around your privates. NICE is a very Christian thing and rewards people that are ‘nice’ – BUT as far as I know every every other relegion will punish those that are not whilst alive. Other religions will just say ‘good boy/girl you can go now’ if they are NICE and judge even in death those that are not NICE. In death remember what they did and do not sugar coat it and remember what they could have been or done. The potentials of a person is what they choose not what others allow (this does not including individuals that are activity excluded like indigenous and the marginalized and female population).

  23. Mark Needham

    Gossip, bitchiness, ridicule and crap.
    Doesn’t get better than this, Hey.
    Mark Needham

  24. zoltan balint

    OK so make it different and Hey crap … , Mark

  25. paulwalter

    That’s the spirit, silkworm.

  26. wam

    roswell nobody should be verbally attacked (nominally booed) for not liking goodes but nobody in the history of football was booed like goodes. The circumstances of your comment may have been in a context where you were booing because you didn’t like him and others followed because they agreed with your unintended racism.

    The booers were like eddy everything’s comment for goodes advertise king kong show in melbourne or drown carolyn just smartarse off the cuff locker room drivel steeped in racism and sexism that the sheep followed.
    When swans played the dockers the coach specifically asked freo fans not to boo but away the racists went before a ball was kicked and repeated over and over.

    They were destroying a lovely bloke.

    Maybe leak was a paid booer who was excellent at his job of getting the sheep to boo along with him.

    as for de mortuis nihil nisi bonum it has been part of society for a very long time???

  27. Peter F

    @Paul Walter: ‘a fleeting fancy’ My son gave me the book ‘Great interviews of the twentieth century’ in 1990: google it. You may consider this ‘a fleeting fancy’, but I am not old enough to call 27 years fleeting. 27 does bear an amazing relationship to my age, as it happens.

  28. Bill Shaw

    “Don’t speak ill of the dead” and “respect the dead” is a noble concept. For example Hitler was just an ordinary guy and is to be respected.

  29. Max Gross

    When Bill Leak was alive I thought he was a nasty piece of shite. Now that he has died I think he was a nasty piece of shite. OK?

  30. Phil Worrall

    Expressing your beliefs,even if others find those beliefs repulsive has to be respected.However expressing those beliefs on behalf of an organization,that will only employ people holding those beliefs is repulsive

  31. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Helvi is 100% correct with both her posts.

  32. Alan Baird

    I preferred it when Stan Zemanek cashed in his chips and Mike Carlton pointedly said he only went to the funeral to make sure he was dead. Stan was a really nasty piece of work in the fine US-Oz mercenary-for-the-rich-shock-jock tradition. The engorged brains of the Right commentariat were wondrous to behold following Mike’s iconoclasm. Sadly, not one cerebral haemorrhage.

  33. Deanna Jones

    Finally some good news!

  34. paulwalter

    Alan Baird.

  35. Lawrence

    Funny thing to speak ill of the ‘dead’ – speaking ill of an effigy in name, a named-effigy that can make no changes to a passed life for obvious reasons – how is that working out for you? Wayne Turner’s comment above makes the most sense.

    If one were to stand on a street corner and speak ill of Hitler for hours and hours and hours and hours and hours, well, how long before you would be carted off to hospital to undergo psychological assessment? Fixation is not freedom.

    If soul is eternal, then the ‘life’ of one person is what – one temporal span of an ongoing energetic impulse that appears and disappears, the living out of one particular existence predetermined by previous karma? Or is it like the atheists say and the whole thing, life, is one big random event?

    Question: If Bill was so bad, what is wrong with this cartoon?…1376.7177.0.8838.….0…1ac.1.64.img..4.8.1666…0.lB0Aa3ySivU#imgrc=6Dug9GZc7-3AfM

  36. Stephen Brailey

    The old “free”speech debate…I think we can all agree that Bill Leak produced bog standard stereotypes for a right wing rag. While Bill may have had talent as an artist I’m sure there are literally thousands of kids with just as much talent. But we wont see their work because they aren’t rich privileged old white men working for a second rate broadsheet pushing an agreed ploitcal agenda.

  37. guest

    From what I am reading here, Bill Leak was a lovely bloke – just got caught up with the wrong crowd.

  38. Trish Corry

    There are a lot of people in this world who cause pain to others and ourselves. I try to be mindful that there are others who love and adore the person who has passed. Others know that person differently. Hell, others actually know that person. I prefer to sit quietly and contemplate their death. It’s not like he has the opportunity to explain why he did those cartoons in a memoir. I am not an artist and I cannot judge the motivations of one. I can comfortably speak out when he has an opportunity to respond. But I’m not comfortable when he cannot. I’m also commenting on his art not his entire being. His entire being is something I don’t know and I can’t judge in death. When very bad people like child murderers die I am vocal and I wish them a terrible afterlife. I don’t compare my feelings about that to any public figure, including artists.

  39. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Respectfully Trish,

    that demonstrates your values and not BLeak’s.

    Maybe his head injury caused him to change his personality. That’s about the only concession I could accommodate him to speak more respectfully.

  40. zoltan balint

    You can only comment on things you know about the person. As I tried to say above view them in death as you did in life. Hate it when in a eulogy you hear ‘he/she was a wonderful person …’ – bullshit.

  41. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    With respect, zoltan,

    some things are not available to mere mortals in life that become apparent in death.

  42. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    To be clearer zoltan,

    a person’s death can reveal information that was not readily available until they died. Hence some comments might appear ill-judged only coz the wider information was not available.

  43. zoltan balint

    Thanks for the thought Jennifer but, and a very big but – how should the people offended by his public comments and have passed away before he did get to know this new information.

  44. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    I’m just going on what I’ve heard spoken of him since his death by people who still liked him and whom I have some respect for, such as Jane Caro and Laura Tingle.

    My first response was harsh and still is but probably a bit moderated now.

  45. zoltan balint

    Yes I have heard Laura T talking about him on the Insiders as well and I am sure face to face and in a work environment he would have been a nice chap. I am sure, absolutely positive someone will remember the time I got up on a train so an old man could sit down and no one can remember when I kicked the beggars cup over when I got off and told him to get a job. But if I should pass away tonight tell everyone about the old man.

  46. Matters Not

    My mother, before she died at age 96, reminded me that when it came to her burial there would be a minimum of two people ‘lying’. She would be one. And the other would be the person delivering the eulogy.

    I remember the eulogy with approval nevertheless.

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