The Problems Posed By To Kill A Mockingbird

Recent media reports regarding efforts by a school district in Biloxi, Mississippi to drop To Kill A Mockingbird from their curriculum have generated understandable concern. As schools continue to grapple with both disorienting societal changes and increasing political polarization, we are inevitably going to see more challenges to specific classroom content and practices, which should concern any professional educator. Anger rarely results in good policy decisions.

Our societal discord certainly connects to broader questions regarding what we expect of our K-12 schools. That fine line between education and indoctrination will be ever more difficult to discern as educators struggle to find ways to challenge students to think without falling into the trap of preaching to them. However, given the well-documented deficiencies in critical thinking skills that colleges and employers must grapple with today, it is more important than ever to encourage our K-12 schools to shake students from their easy assumptions and comfortable mental inertia. The question is, of course, how best to do this.

I’ve taught To Kill A Mockingbird to high school students in the past, and they were often shocked to read about the routine degradations inherent in the entrenched racial discrimination of our nation’s history. If nothing else, the novel served as a lesson that allowed us to ladder into discussions about what has—and still has not—changed in America today. It has been many years since I’ve had the opportunity to teach this particular novel, but I suspect that my classroom lessons and activities regarding To Kill A Mockingbird would need to be very different now because I would be compelled to address uncomfortable changes in our perceptions of the characters and their motivations.

The cartoonish delineation between the heroes and villains in To Kill A Mockingbird has always posed pedagogical problems, although it eases reading comprehension for an audience often composed of 8th or 9th graders. On the one side we have the Ewell family, who are a caricature of what we expect—and perhaps prefer—our racists to be, an ignorant and violent clan devoid of even an iota of decency or honesty. Facing off against them, we have Atticus Finch, a caring and compassionate lawyer and tragic widower raising two intelligent and inquisitive children who are miraculously free of the least taint of racism. Caught in the middle we have Tom Robinson, falsely accused of rape by the evil Ewells, and the very personification of stoic dignity in the face of injustice. There are no shades of gray among these main characters; there are only, if I may be forgiven this analogy, broad strokes of black and white.

To Kill A Mockingbird, were it to be published today, would likely face a somewhat more mixed critical reception. Aunt Alexandra’s desperate efforts to put a gloss of girlishness on the tomboyish Scout would likely be more harshly judged by contemporary feminist critics. Mr. Dolphus Raymond’s sexual relationships with African-American women would raise questions regarding power differentials and consent. Boo Radley’s peculiar interest in his prepubescent neighbors, which obviously includes covertly observing them and following them outside the house at night, might not be so wondrously free of any question of pedophilia—or at least “stranger danger”—in today’s less innocent world. It may well be that the year of the novel’s publication back in the mists of 1960 was the very last moment in our cultural and social history when the questions and answers seemed quite obvious and easy, so complexity and nuance could be blithely set aside in the pursuit of an uplifting fable.

I’ve always been a bit leery of joining in the chorus of hosannas regarding To Kill A Mockingbird, and perhaps this is because I have always found Atticus Finch a bit less than admirable—which I realize is near to sacrilege to some. Although he has the best possible intentions in the worst possible situation, Atticus Finch and his legal machinations, in a final and flinty-eyed analysis of outcomes, actually come to nothing. Tom Robinson is dead, no minds are changed, and the Jim Crow system that informs the actions of the town and its people is wholly unaffected.

Atticus Finch’s attitudes and actions are in many respects a foreshadowing of the well-meaning (but ultimately ineffectual) white liberals in the 1960’s whose best intentions would be overrun by the flame and fury that finally destroyed Jim Crow segregation and its many local permutations. Although the novel suggests that readers should derive some cosmic satisfaction from the death of the thoroughly despicable Bob Ewell, which also allowed Boo Radley to finally reveal his essential human decency (although it might be reasonably observed that manslaughter is a mighty odd plot device to get there), it would be impossible to argue the trial of Tom Robinson produced any significant changes in the town or its people.

Of course, all of this speaks to the many moral compromises that inform the book. The worst of the town of Maycomb and its racist attitudes is on display, but the best of the many small but significant accommodations the decent need to make each day to survive in an indecent world also bear our examination. It could be argued, if one really was looking for hope for a better future, that the most moral course of action Atticus Finch could have pursued would have been to refuse to represent Tom Robinson, thereby removing the thin veneer of respectability that placates those whose mute compliance is needed. Imagine how different the novel would have been if Judge Taylor had not been able to use Atticus’ stirring but pointless speech to soothe the consciences of those who knew just how profound an injustice was being done. Moral but meaningless victories serve the needs of tyrannies that need to smooth over the rawness of oppression, and we should not fail to recognize that Atticus’ carefully restrained outrage sounded lovely but changed nothing at all.

All of this is, of course, beside the point of why the novel is now often banned. The norms that now rule in many communities judge the politically incorrect—but historically accurate—usage of the “N-Word” as both insult and casual descriptor to be too much to bear in our sensitive school and social climates. This is understandable, but it also opens up opportunities for classroom discussion of the novel and its context. If we are going to crusade to excise every questionable bit of U.S. history from our schools instead of engaging in the conversation, research, and exploration of our past that is a core mission of education, we condemn our children to facile sloganeering instead of intelligent and well-rounded inquiry that will prepare them for a future where the answers will be neither obvious nor easy.

Perhaps the key to continuing to use To Kill A Mockingbird in our nation’s classroom is to gently remove it from its pedestal and recognize its limitations—just as acknowledging our own human limitations is the precursor to a better understanding of our world and ourselves. To Kill A Mockingbird is not a perfect novel, and the tiresome insistence on canonizing it impedes an honest engagement with what can be learned from a thoughtful and critical reading. Just as a person can be wonderful but flawed, so can a book fall into that same category. If we can accept this, perhaps we can finally move forward instead of squabbling without end, which ultimately does nothing to improve the education of our children.

 

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Our Intolerantly Tolerant Nation

Since a bitter and divisive Presidential election last year, we have been embroiled in seemingly never-ending bitter and divisive protests regarding healthcare, immigration, court nominations, higher education, law enforcement, public health, gender and identity politics, K-12 education, religious liberty, gun control, free speech, and virtually every other aspect of governmental policies and their many—often unfortunate—intersections with our daily lives.

Now we have a new imbroglio, which this time concerns the behavior of some NFL players during the playing of the national anthem. This issue has been thrust onto center stage—at least for the moment—by President Trump’s blunt comments regarding the parentage of players who participate. This is not the first—nor will it be the last—instance of public protests dividing our nation. We have become shockingly expert at communicating nothing while supposedly making our points clear.

Each separate protest about any particular issue that is important to some group of individuals—given shape and sharpened by single-issue interest groups before being whipped into a merry froth by sensationalistic media outlets chasing eyeballs—has its own fraught history and contentious present. However, many of these matters have a common lineage: a celebration of the individual’s absolute right to self-expression and self-determination. To a degree that is sometimes startling in its scope, we have elevated the all-encompassing but ultimately amorphous concept of “tolerance” to the center of all our decision-making processes. Therefore, any idea, belief, or policy that sets boundaries, presumes judgment, or fails to wholeheartedly endorse the full range of human beliefs and behaviors is subject to attack as being an expression of “hate” against one group or another.

Tolerance is, of course, a fine and reasonable ideal because it provides an often necessary brake on our human tendency to form instant and lasting impressions of people and situations. Those who are quick to judge are many times equally slow to listen, so a commitment to tolerance can help to mediate between our preconceptions and reality, which can many times help to facilitate communication and understanding.

However, “tolerance” can also be used as a bludgeon to silence viewpoints with which we disagree. The assumption that all disagreements are rooted in mindless hatred and ancient bigotries is both an intensely comforting—and exceedingly lazy—approach to the many complexities of human life. It allows for a smug certainty that absolves one from even bothering to consider alternate viewpoints. If we occupy a safe space where our values and behaviors are beyond the reach of discussion or evaluation, we can blithely go through our lives assured that we are right and the rest of the world—or at least that portion that does not share our social media space—is just plain mean and wrong. Beyond this, any attempt to present or argue a contrary viewpoint is, should my interlocutor persist, an assault upon my personhood that empowers me—to assault you right back.

Is it any wonder that civil conversation about any issue seems ever more impossible with each passing day? Even a topic as previously anodyne as the weather is now enveloped in white-hot emotions about the truth and scope of global warming. I find it no surprise that we now spend all of our time peering at our phones and avoiding eye contact. It’s a great way to hide out.

I worry about the many issues that now crop up around campus speech and ask myself how higher education is supposed to thrive when the very act of asking a provocative question can result in the academic equivalent of shunning. I see our two major political parties growing more polarized and wonder how we can ever work together to find reasonable compromises to the many problems besetting our nation and world. I read the increasingly angry screeches that have now become the mainstays of our mainstream media’s analyses and shudder at the apparent absence of any ability to examine an opposing viewpoint without resorting to ad hominem attacks meant to harm rather than elucidate.

However, a commitment to “tolerance” will solve all our difficulties, right?

I increasingly suspect that tolerance—as both a value and strategy—will solve little. The problem becomes obvious when you wade a little deeper into the National Anthem protests in the NFL. On the one hand we are asked to respect the individual rights of players to “take a knee” to bring attention to discriminatory police behavior that targets African-Americans—so let’s be tolerant, people. However, given that this all takes place during the playing of the National Anthem, many patriotic Americans find this form of protest to be intolerably disrespectful to the flag and our nation. Which belief or behavior is more deserving of our tolerance? Do we accept a protest that offends many or back those who demand we show respect for the flag? Who is more deserving of our support in this situation—and a host of many more where our tolerance is loudly demanded? Given that any discussion of values or (gasp!) right and wrong will “privilege” one point of view or another, the only certainty in this situation and others like it is that we will continue to argue—forever.

Tolerance—and the moral relativism it encourages—is all fine and good when confined to a college classroom where we are asking students to open their minds to contrasting viewpoints as an academic exercise, but it fails miserably when it sails out into a nation where actual people might become actually angry when someone insults the actual values that inform their actual lives. If we insist tolerance is our highest value, one person’s morality will always be another’s bigotry, so we are now locked into a cultural cage match with no winners and no losers—only unceasing conflict.

Hence, we have become Protest Nation. Now that the volume of our shouts has superseded our quiet respect for common cultural values and signifiers—flag, faith, and family—that somehow managed to carry us into the middle of the last century, little remains beyond our anger. How very sad. In the course of discovering and celebrating our wondrous individuality over the past fifty years, we have forgotten our most basic responsibility to one another: simple, common courtesy.

As much as I would like to support the individual right to self-expression, I find the NFL player protests to be flawed in concept and pointless in practice. Sometimes you just have to stand for the anthem as a demonstration of national respect. I’m probably not the only person annoyed with virtue-signaling and empty, insulting public posturing. It’s time to stop behaving like self-important brats and rejoin Team USA.

I might not sound tolerant, but I am being honest.

 

A Few Words About Events In Charlottesville

Given the superheated national dialogue regarding the conflict, violence, injuries, and deaths surrounding the “Unite The Right” rally that turned a lovely college town in Virginia into a battleground, I approach this topic with some trepidation. I worry that offering my thoughts will turn me into a target for trolls. I am frustrated that being a white male turns my opinions on many topics into an opportunity for someone to chastise me for my white privilege—which is a fairly annoying way to tell me that my viewpoints are not worth considering. I am concerned that somebody whom I have never met and who knows nothing about my life, my experiences, or my values will “dox” me, enable harassment at my home and workplace, and brand me as a bigot and hater around the world thanks to the global reach of social media—leaving me with absolutely no hope of redeeming myself through reasoned discussion.

Deep breath….

  1. The white supremacists marching and shouting in Charlottesville—all 500 of them, according the Associated Press—need to engage in some serious soul-searching. If these kinds of twisted and hateful thoughts are your life’s preoccupation, you’ve got some major personal issues to resolve.
  2. The bonehead who drove his car into a crowd deserves nothing but our contempt.
  3. The young woman who was killed is a tragic victim. My condolences go out to her family and friends.
  4. The deaths of two police officers in a helicopter crash is a senseless, unnecessary accident that diminishes us all.
  5. Any attempt to use these terrible events for political advantage should be resisted. This will do absolutely nothing but harden hearts and close minds.
  6. As impossible as it may be for some to believe, the vast majority of Americans are reasonable, caring, and respectful people who find it immensely frustrating that the idiotic actions of the very few are consuming the attention of the many. It is also worth asking whether the intense interest of the mass media in this kind of moronic behavior further encourages and legitimizes it.
  7. Larger lessons about the attitudes of our nation cannot be gleaned from the actions of a tiny group of losers. Just as I derived no useful understanding about America or Americans from the sniper murders of five Dallas police officers last year, I see the confrontation in Charlottesville as nothing more than an example of the sad power of crazy, stupid, and angry people to hurt the innocent.
  8. I agree with a quote widely attributed to M.K. Gandhi: “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” As tempting—and perhaps personally satisfying—as it might be for the “Antifa” (Anti-Fascist) counter-demonstrators to punch, kick, and shove those espousing hatred, it is an urge that must be resisted. Of course, those lining up to fight back against idiocy might find this terribly unfair, but if you want to occupy the moral high ground, you have to demonstrate more restraint and maturity than the average six year old child.

The big picture moral of the story here seems straightforward enough. We need to keep in mind that those who are lost, angry, and embittered can cause great harm to others. Community mental health services might help some get their lives back on track, but most cuckoos are destined to remain cuckoos no matter what we may try to do to help them. Sad to say, therapy and medication have limited power to change hearts and minds warped by hatred.

In the final analysis we best serve ourselves and the interests of our nation by being alert to problems, open to thoughtful discussion, and firm in our resolve to never let fringe groups dominate our public spaces or private thoughts. Giving too much attention and credence to the rantings of extremists of any sort gives them much more power over our lives than they deserve. We should obviously not ignore virulent racists for the simple reason that we should never ignore any problem in our communities, but we need to avoid generalizing the bizarre and hurtful behavior of a few individuals to our entire country and its people because by so doing we only create problems where they might not exist, turning all interactions into ones fraught with suspicion or fear—and that would be a victory for those whose lives are consumed by hatred.

 

 

We’re Still Living In The “Age of O.J.”

I was living in Buffalo, NY when O.J. Simpson took his famous “White Bronco Ride” in 1994. In a city for which O.J. was both a sports legend and local icon, the shock and sense of loss was perhaps even more devastating than the sudden death of a close friend or family member. However, as crushing as events were for my fellow Buffalonians, the tawdry and disconcerting 15 months that followed were even worse for the rest of America because they helped to cement into place the soul-destroying tabloid culture that now dominates our daily lives.

O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the double murders of his estranged wife and an acquaintance back in 1995, but he has been in a Nevada prison for the past nine years after being convicted for his role in a botched 2007 Las Vegas hotel room robbery. He will, however, be paroled this October—now an aging and arthritic “model prisoner”.

Ironically, he will be futilely attempting to slip away into anonymity within the world of ceaseless speculation, relentless rumormongering, and empty fame that his 1994-95 saga helped create. In the post-O.J. world all aspects of our culture and politics have become captive to made-for-TV (or Internet streaming) contrived controversies, bizarre scandals, and faux news—all resulting in the crushing cynicism that essentially owes its monstrous lineage to the circus surrounding his chase, arrest, and murder trial.

He was acquitted of murder, but the rest of us were sentenced to a lifetime of inane and scandal-ridden infotainment. Now glued to our flat-screen televisions and smart phones, we experience our world as less a sober discussion of our shared values and illuminating experiences and more a gladiatorial contest of screeching individuals and outlandish insults curated by media puppeteers chasing ratings and paychecks. Tabloid culture sets the norms of our lives and our nation.

Right and wrong have ceased to have any meaning. There is only transitory titillation and sensationalized speculation regarding our leading celebrities—or perhaps celebrity leaders masquerading as politicians—that provide our daily dose of outrage. We hold profound opinions regarding the most insignificant people and matters, yet we are largely uninformed about those important issues that will affect our real lives.

Little wonder we cannot concentrate on improving our communities and country.

Those 15 months of “all O.J., all the time” fed our morbid obsession with caring passionately about that which is truly inconsequential—and here we are today. We focus on foolish behavior and petty conflicts, but almost no time is devoted to matters of actual consequence in our lives, and our willful ignorance leaves us vulnerable to demagoguery and deceit. The names change, the salacious and scurrilous scandals slip and slide, and the world goes round and round. Over two decades after the advent of O.J. and his impact on media and our society, we are now too distracted by dramatic dysfunction to even understand just how lost we really are.

Kardashians, anyone?

 

In Defense Of Free Speech

It would not have occurred to me a decade or so ago that I would ever have to assert my support for the right of an American to express an opinion. One of the wonders of living in the United States—and, in fact, likely our greatest strength—is our free-wheeling, brash, chaotic, and amazingly rich discourse regarding ourselves, our nation, and the world around us. Whether our opinions were rude, lewd, or full of attitude, it was always presumed to be our inalienable right to express them without fear of retribution.

Apparently, this is no longer the case.

Now that speech codes on our college campuses have devolved into “shut up codes” suppressing ideas that don’t fit into somebody’s idea of tolerance (I still shake my head at the inherent irony of this), social media is used as a mechanism to publicly shame those who don’t conform, and mainstream media outlets readily characterize anyone who disagrees with progressive orthodoxy as a bigot, the state of free speech in America seems surprisingly fragile.

Recent violent confrontations at Berkeley (ironically enough, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960’s) and Middlebury College call into question the very existence of reasoned debate when a few are empowered to simply “shut down” dissenting viewpoints that they deem “hate speech”. Aside from the obvious question of where the line between hate speech and differing opinions is supposed to be—some broadly define hate speech to be virtually anything that might diverge from their own viewpoints and cause the apparently intense discomfort of self-reflection or doubt—one has to wonder how we have reached the point where shockingly many celebrate the practice of censorship by loud, threatening mobs. As scary as some aspects of our contemporary political scene might be, I find people shouting down speakers a great deal more frightening—especially when I consider the historical antecedents of such actions.

If you disagree with someone’s ideas, please listen respectfully—and explain your own viewpoint with a minimum of personal attacks. As personally satisfying as some might find it to “argue through insult”, a civil society requires civil conversations.

Dehumanizing those with differing opinions only invites violent speech—and perhaps violent action—because it communicates that those individuals are not worthy of even the most basic respect. Words have consequences, but the manner in which they are spoken to one another also is important. Those who consider common courtesy a mere bourgeois affectation would do well to remember those times in human history when it was considered appropriate to strip basic human dignity from others because “they deserved it”.

Societies that fail to ensure all their members have a voice generally come to grief, and those individuals who insist that they—and only they—have the right answer to what ails society or the world often have been the enablers of the most brutish episodes in the history of civilization. We would do well to remember this.