Bill Leak and Speaking of the Dead

11 March 2017
Cartoonist for the Australian, Bill Leak, died suddenly yesterday, and in death as in life, he was a divisive figure. Leak was best known for his output of disgusting cartoons targeting whoever caught the fancy of his bile - he was particularly fond of directing his vile scribblings on Aboriginal people, the LGBTQ community and Muslims - which I won't link to here and which he continued to churn out within hours of his death.

But of course, everyone's a top bloke after death; and with Leak's passing, the usual chorus of banal reminiscence has swung into action Whilst some sections of the commetariat are valorising him as a beacon, even a martyr, of free speech, others in the media who really should know better are carefully stepping aside his legacy of spite by using the c word:

They are insisting that the people Leak targeted should pay him the respect in death he never showed them in life. That we should ignore that Leak was a racist, homophobic bigot and, in light of all the reports from those who knew Leak personally who say he was a lovely bloke, if we can't say anything nice say nothing at all.

Well, there's an argument to be made that Leak would have wanted us to remember him by saying offensive things, exercising our free speech; he would have wanted it that way. But considering the hurt Leak caused (and if Rowan Dean can say Leak was hounded by accusations of bigotry, we can all agree that words hurt), the response has been fairly restrained. The general consensus from those Leak delighted (oh yes) in upsetting was "I'm not glad he's dead, but I am glad he's gone".

Anyway, who's fault is it if many people had less than flattering things to say about Bill Leak - were even relieved that he won't be publishing any more of his awful cartoons? Leak did this work, he surely enjoyed the reaction he got, and now it is his legacy.

It makes me think, there's a lesson for everyone here. You can't control how you're remembered once you're gone. Bill Leak saw himself as a tireless advocate for "free speech", but he's no longer here to control the narrative, and he's being remembered as a racist Islamaphobic homophobe who made a lot of money out of being shitty to large groups of people. It's the same for any of us. You may think you're admired for your unflinching honesty, or your the frisson of excitement you brought to life for "stirring the pot", but there will ever be those who think you're just an arsehole, and will remember you that way.

It's often said we shouldn't live our lives caring what other people think. That is in some ways terrible advice; we all have to live together on this planet and we need to look out for each other, starting with being considerate of each other's feelings. How do you want to be remembered? What do you want your legacy to be? And if you don't care, cause you'll be dead, what do you want those closest to you that you leave behind to hear about you?

There is a certain irony in all this; Leak referred to political correctness as ‘a means of imposing totalitarianism by stealth, perfectly suited to the cowardly', whilst attempting to impose the views of himself and his ilk on the world by making it unacceptable to object to the work he did. Well now he is gone and spare us from cries of outrage over the "disrespectful" reaction.

I've read numerous accounts from people who knew Leak personally - some of whom I know personally - speaking of what a great, generous, personable man he was. Does that make him a nice guy though? ...No.

It's easy to be nice to people you know. It's easy to see them as people, to want to delight a friend's small child, to counsel a colleague who has just lost a parent, to open your house to a mate in the throes of a fresh marital separation.

It's easy to care about the people you know and see, and easy to bask in the reaction of gratitude and admiration from those around you. "Oh, aren't you lovely, doing this!".

It's harder to care about the people you don't know. To realise they are as much individuals as your friends. To realise they love their families just as much. To realise the pains of life affect them just as much.

It's hard to care about these strangers, so it's easy to blame them for their own woes, easy to vote for government policies that will make their lot even more miserable. Easy to draw cartoons portraying them as feckless, evil, lazy, greedy, bad parents, bad people.

You might be the first to offer tea, sympathy and a shoulder to cry on. You might work the tuckshop at little athletics, be the first to volunteer at the school, run genes for genes day at the office, be described as a warm, generous, caring person who loves people and loves life. But if you're also arguing asylum seekers deserve to be locked up for queue jumping and Aboriginal people are drunken grifters with only themselves to blame for their disadvantage, you're not a nice person. You're just not. You've got the easy stuff - you care about the people you know. You do the work that gets you thanks and praise.

The hard stuff - the stuff that makes you a nice person - is how much you care about the people you don't know. How much you realise that they are people, too.

Bill Leak was generous and lovely to the people he knew. Revoltingly horrible to people he didn't. He wasn't a nice person. What about the rest of us? What about the legacy we will leave behind?


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