Despite the increasing marginalisation of history in our schools and universities, some aspects of archaeology seem to be in the cultural ascendant. For while our collective historical foreground increasingly shrinks to the tweet before yesterday, some brave amateur historians are digging deep into the digital past to uncover a hidden record of moral wrongdoing. I am referring, of course, to the practice of recovering old tweets or other long-forgotten statements to shame and cancel people. Although identity politics has already swamped us with more neologisms than we care to think about, I propose that we start calling such resurrection of past minor transgressions “deadfacting”: the deliberate and deliberately unkind exhumation of obscure facts from a person’s past that should, by any standard of kindness or generosity, be left dormant or simply ignored.Dead Names and Dead Facts
Deadfacting is coined deliberately to mimic deadnaming, a term that has become widespread in discourses around transgender identity. Deadnaming is the act of calling a transgender person by their birth name, which reflects the sex they were born as rather than the gender as which they now identify. To call a transgender person by their birth name is therefore to resurrect an old identity that they have chosen to leave behind, like a skin shed and discarded. Deadnaming is widely condemned as being pointlessly cruel.
Encapsulated within the prohibition on deadnaming there is a strong claim to be allowed to leave the facts of one’s former life behind. How odd, then, that leftist activists who insist we not deadname are often also amongst those most eager to drag up old facts and tweets to shame and cancel people who have, for whatever reason, offended them. This, one might argue, suggests a double standard, for while some people seem to have an absolute right to obliterate their past, others seem to be condemned to be hounded by it forever.
An obvious objection to this proposition would be that deadnaming and deadfacting simply cannot be compared. The first pertains to a person’s most intimate identity while the second is concerned with voluntary acts and alleged moral offences committed in the past, and which are or were potentially harmful to others. This is true. But it is also not quite my point. The real issue I want to address is not about any equivalence between deadnaming and deadfacting but about when, and under which circumstances, a past may be eligible for elimination or resurrection, about who gets to make that call, and on what grounds. When looked at from this perspective, some disquieting similarities between deadnaming and deadfacting come to the surface, and they should not be discounted too easily.
The Lives You Own and the Facts You Lose
Both the prohibition on deadnaming and the rush to deadfacting have a unilateral character. They both involve an imposition upon others. The right not to be deadnamed is typically formulated as part of a transgender person’s right to self-definition, as if it were an entirely self-regarding act. But it clearly interferes with other people’s right to self-definition. Should the parents of a trans woman simply obliterate from their memories, their family albums, their dreams, and their conversations the fact that a boy was born to them and that, for many years, they raised, cared for, and loved a boy? Even if they fully embrace their child’s trans identity (as one hopes they would), does that justify the demand that they forget or rewrite the facts of the past? And what about the extended family, ex-girlfriends, school friends, neighbours, former colleagues? How far should the circle of rewriting extend?
What is presented as a simple case of self-definition is really an insistent demand that everybody else redefine at least part of their lives and identities in a way that accommodates the wishes of the transgender person. Everyone is required to live as if the transition never happened,and as if the chosen gender had always been that person’s public identity. At its broadest level, and especially if the trans person is a well-known figure, this may entail the collective rewriting of the public record for the benefit of one person’s identity claims.
The exact opposite happens in deadfacting, where a person’s life is reduced to a single fact or act from their past that should henceforth define them entirely. This inevitably happens in complete defiance of that person’s self-definition, for most people whose past harbours some infelicitous joke or remark that is subsequently revived as proof positive of their racist or sexist predisposition certainly do not self-define as either sexist or racist and would be horrified at the very thought. This should not surprise us. It is by now an open secret that many victims of cancellation are completely innocent of any real offense and that a lot of cancellations are based on deliberate distortions of people’s past words or intentions. Much cancellation involves deliberate malice rather than a pursuit of retrospective justice. Yet everyone is required to act as if the alleged offense is the only thing that truly matters in that person’s life.
At this juncture a moral short-circuit takes place, on two levels. Judgements are made about what counts as a significant fact and about who gets to author a life. The prohibition against deadnaming requires that we deny a shared reality (the transwoman was born and raised a boy, or vice versa) and thus undervalue events and facts that are known to and shared by many (the entire family and community who watched the natal boy or girl grow up). Conversely, deadfacting requires that we overvalue events and facts that most people would not consider the ultimate touchstone of another person’s character or personal worth and which for many reasonable people would merely have some anecdotal relevance.
Both cases also involve a claim about ownership and authorship of a life. In the prohibition against deadnaming countless other people are required to rewrite their own narrative to reflect the trans person’s chosen gender. There is therefore an insistent demand that the past be erased. In deadfacting the exact opposite happens, for in total disregard of the other persons’ right to self-definition the past is made emphatically present by raking it up regardless of its relevance to the present. It is the radical claim to authorship of other people’s life narratives that ties the prohibition against deadnaming and the indulgence of deadfacting together.
The Past Comes Knocking
Most of us have a skeleton or two in our closet. We have all at some point said or done or written something that we afterwards regretted, or that seemed perfectly innocuous at the time but that has taken on a more sinister shade in view of subsequent changes in cultural attitudes. This, one might say, is simply a hazard of being alive. To have such infelicities in one’s past is merely to be human. This is also why we typically extend each other the courtesy of not raking up minor past transgressions, real or imagined, unless there is good cause to think that malice was involved, or real damage was caused that has not been accounted for.
Deadfacting breaks this silent contract of courtesy. If we may borrow the words of Mr Utterson in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), deadfacting confronts one with “the ghost of some old sin, the cancer of some concealed disgrace: punishment coming, pede claudo, years after memory has forgotten and self-love concealed the fault.” Whether real or imagined, an unwelcome version of the past comes “limping back” into the present, like a resentful imp out for vengeance, and threatens to unravel the fabric of our life.
This serves as a warning to others. It tells us that none shall be safe and that internet trolls will take it upon themselves to act like the all-seeing eye of a post-secular god from whom no blemish or blot on our innermost conscience can be hidden. In the frenzy of revelation, the recorded past offence is no longer merely anecdotal evidence of a life lived with the usual messiness, but it becomes an undeletable trace of an objectionable moral abyss within us. The stain defines us and henceforth becomes the gold standard for any final judgement of our character.
Accounting For a Life
Of course, digging up past transgressions is not always by definition a bad thing. If it were, history could not be written, much less biography. There is a good case to be made for revealing our moral failings, presumed past offences, or nearly forgotten crimes. After all, our failings are as much part of who we are as our successes and moral triumphs, and to deny part of who we are does not do justice to our imperfect humanity. The relevant question is therefore not whether we should always refrain from revealing alleged or possible unpleasantness in a person’s past, but on what terms, for what purpose, and in what spirit such revelation might be undertaken.
This question is by no means a fresh one: it is central to the pursuit of the professional biographer, who is often burdened with the question whether unexpected discoveries of a prominent personality’s dark side should see the light of day, and how to go about such illumination. It is no coincidence that the work of biographers has often been likened, both by biographers and by the poor people who have become the victims of a published Life, to an act of moral burglary, violation, or even (as Germaine Greer once put it) rape.
Yet there is a crucial difference between the work of the serious biographer and deadfacting. To be sure, badly written, poorly researched, and sensationalist biographies often barely rise above the level of deadfacting, and we might dismiss those out of hand. But even the most fastidiously researched and sympathetically composed biographies regularly reveal or highlight facts in their subjects’ lives that may cause anything from slight embarrassment to mortification for either the subject or their surviving friends and relatives. One might here think of the facts concerning Eric Gill’s incestuous relationships with his sisters and daughters, not to mention his sexual experiments with animals, as detailed in Fiona MacCarthy’s exemplary Life of the artist. Or consider William Burroughs’ shooting of his wife, or Norman Mailer stabbing his wife. And then there are the countless extramarital affairs, visits to prostitutes, drug addictions, or gay double lives that we learn about in the higher regions of biographical accounting.
I suggest (based on my own reading experience, which I expect to be like that of others) that such revelations, within the framework of serious biography, tend not to diminish the subject as a person, even if they do sometimes invite our moral censure. The reason for this is quite simple: within a serious biographical narrative embarrassing or unsettling facts are not trotted out to humiliate or shame the subject. Rather, they render the subject a more interesting person, more complex, more multi-faceted, and especially – more human. If we are honest with ourselves, I think we do not privately find most ‘scandalous’ facts about others very scandalous at all. They are often simply all too human.
Of course, there is a threshold of tolerance. If the revealed facts take on a distinctly criminal flavour and the subject is revealed to be, for example, a murderer or a rapist, this might give us pause, as it certainly should. But even then, the point of a good biography is not to dismiss this person as a mere murderer or rapist, but to provide insight into the complex factors that drove this person to commit these heinous acts, and to demonstrate how understanding their motivations can perhaps enrich, deepen, or complicate our understanding and appreciation of the subject’s work.
The Gradient of Retrospective Judgement
The sheer lack of nuance in its judgement suggests that there is never a case for deadfacting: it is always a callously destructive act. But as the practice of biography shows, the case against reviving dormant facts is far from absolute. Any decision about whether unwelcome histories should see the light of day should therefore be considered along a gradient of retrospective judgement: a complex intersection of questions about the relative significance of the dormant fact, the role it plays in the narrated life, and how it will be used to reflect on the general character and quality of the person about to be exposed to the probing eyes of the public. It is, in the final analysis, a judgement of fairness. It reflects as much on the morality of the narrator as on the morality of the narrated. If you want to know whether a fact about a person should be exposed, ask yourself if you want to be (known as) the type of person who exposed it in this fashion.
Conversely, there are a multitude of good reasons for not deadnaming a person. For one thing, it is needlessly and carelessly hurtful, it humiliates, and it typically serves no other purpose than to make the trans person deeply uncomfortable while fully exposed to the eyes of others. But the case against deadnaming is also not absolute. While it seems obvious that a person should never be deadnamed to their face, especially not with third parties in attendance, or merely for the sake of publicly humiliating them, the right to demand the erasure of shared histories diminishes as the circle of acquaintance expands. Here, too, there is a gradient of retrospective judgement, and it will vary with the kind and depth of engagement any person had with your life before you shifted gender identities. Furthermore, not everyone who remembers you by your old name is doing so out of malice: they may be voicing an attachment to your older self rather than contempt for the new.
It is not, after all, a moral offence, nor a hurtful act for other people to insist on loving and remembering a previous version of oneself, and to continue loving us across the disruptive fault lines in our biographies, whether these are a shift in identity or the revelation of a past transgression. In fact, it is only such steadfast affection that protects us from both deadnaming and deadfacting. It is others’ resolute refusal to reduce us to a single aspect of our past (an old name or an old fact) that makes it possible for us to be someone else in the future, ourselves in the present, and to acknowledge our past even while not being defined or swallowed up by it.