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.

 

Is This The End Of Laughter?

Kathy Griffin’s mock beheading of the U.S. President obviously failed the humor test; it was too crude, raw, and violent to be funny. Just as we don’t laugh at injured children, this horrific image could never be seen as a joke except by those who are damaged and devoid of human compassion.

There was, to be sure, an attempt at political protest embedded in that photograph that followed a fairly infantile path of logic: Hate Trump, injure Trump, and laugh at injured Trump. This also fell flat because no one but a psychopath could find anything enlightening or entertaining within an image of such extreme violence. Political protest requires more subtlety and sophistication than a Three Stooges short or snuff film.

There are other recent and notable examples of failed political humor: Bill Maher dropping an N-Bomb during his broadcast, thinking would be good for a few laughs, and Stephen Colbert suggesting on air that President Trump’s mouth was suitable only for performing oral sex on Vladimir Putin. Both of these incidents were in incredibly poor taste—but at least neither was outright violent.

Is there some reason that the comedic sensibilities of those who skewer politics and politicians seem to have landed in a ditch—or perhaps the gutter—in this day and age?

One reality that must first be acknowledged is that a good deal of the political left has been trapped in a world of self-pitying hurt since the election of Donald Trump as President. Why is this important to the state of comedy? This matters because comedians seem to live on the liberal side of the political spectrum, so our drastically altered political climate makes an incalculable difference in the practice of their satirical craft.

Think about it a minute: Do you ever hear of conservative political comedians? This is one of those odd facts of life that perhaps points to some basic wiring issues that might require further study, or it could be that the class clowns of the world spent their youths tormenting anyone who tried to enforce the rules—so they continue to plague those who represent a power structure because it is baked into their psyches. Instead of pestering their parents and teachers, adulthood brings the opportunity for comedians to provoke government officials, industry executives, religious leaders, or anyone else who represents an entrenched order or status quo solution that rubs uncomfortably against their iconoclastic souls. Donald Trump must seem like a nightmare version of every angry dad, mean Gym teacher, or barking Vice-Principal in America to many political comedians—rolled right in with the loutish ex-husband who traded you in for the younger and blonder version to many women—so it is not at all surprising that we can hear the alarm bells ringing in the minds of stand-up comics and Comedy Central jokesters across the nation.

Class clowns of the world unite! The most incredible target in the world has arrived. Although many certainly disagree with President Trump’s policies and philosophies, there seems to be something far more visceral—and vicious—in the comedic air today. This is every kid who got bullied in school now bullying right back in a misbegotten quest for justice, and we are reaping the whirlwind of their rage, but there does seem to be an additional—and larger—question worth considering. Have we reached a point when much of what passes for political humor just doesn’t work anymore because bitter people brimming with bile are rarely all that funny?

Political humor can illuminate the absurdity of certain ideas and provide a relief valve for societal tensions. A full 50 years after the fact, one can still enjoy the amazing satiric musical stylings of Tom Lehrer, and Jon Stewart often did an admirable job highlighting mendacity and sheer stupidity in the contemporary political scene. However, both were doing their best work when they felt the political/cultural winds were blowing their ways, and I wonder if what made their work so successful was that their comedic sensibilities were leavened by optimism. It seems likely to me that each felt that they needed only to point out intolerance, injustice, and incompetence—and innately good government agencies and progressive individuals could then rush to the rescue.

However, now that mainstream Democratic beliefs are being rejected by many voters and traditional liberal institutions—public schools and colleges, the Supreme Court, the Environmental Protection Agency, and United Nations, to name just a few examples—now find their funding, credibility, or core missions facing fundamental changes that few could have foreseen prior to November 8th of last year, a clear sense of siege has descended upon America’s shell-shocked political left. Therefore, it perhaps should not be much of a surprise that our nation’s political humor, which of course largely emanates from the liberal end of the spectrum, has turned sour and sneering. Somehow voters they thought they owned abandoned them, their cultural hegemony is seriously in doubt, and a man they roundly detest is now in the White House. It should not be a surprise that the comfortable smiles have turned into teeth-baring grimaces, and the knowing chuckles have mutated into obscene rants.

We face a number of difficult challenges as a nation and society in the years ahead, so a little political humor could provide some welcome relief—and perhaps even some helpful clarity. I am just not certain it will be possible under our current circumstances. We might be asking for that which can no longer be readily provided, and this is not funny at all.

Can We Survive If “The Center” Is Gone?

We are all defined by our life experiences.

Wherever we grow up, whatever individual circumstances shape our lives, and whomever we interact with all combine to form our perceptions of ourselves and the world in which we live. Moreover, understanding and sharing our life stories can instruct—and sometimes inspire—others. To forget the influences that made us who we are is to, in a sense, forget ourselves, and our personal narratives also help to enhance our understanding of history by giving it a human face. This all makes it important to collect, preserve, and celebrate our life stories and the life stories of those around us.

For example, when I was growing up, one of my favorite books was Reach For The Sky by Paul Brickhill. This account of the life of Douglas Bader, a Royal Air Force pilot who lost both of his legs in an airplane crash, was forced to leave the service on disability—and yet persevered to return the R.A.F. and become one of Britain’s greatest military leaders and fighter aces during World War II—is an amazing tribute to both personal bravery and resilience under the most difficult of life circumstances. It certainly put whatever adolescent concerns I might have had about a stray pimple in its proper perspective and taught me a valuable lesson about never giving up no matter what obstacles life or fate might throw in your path.

Globally speaking, personal narratives—or at least the illusion of them—have been both entertainment and moral instruction since the dawn of civilization. The Iliad and The Odyssey, Mahabharata, The Holy Bible, Beowulf, The Song of Roland, Le Morte D’Arthur, and so manyothers have taught countless generations right from wrong, honor from disgrace, and good from evil. These narratives and others like them, whether sacred text or epic tale, have served as the essential glue binding together societies, nations, continents, and our entire planet by both transmitting shared values and creating institutions that have served as the foundations of governance and justice up until the present day. To put it plainly, without the many life lessons gleaned from these texts and our reactions to them, who we are today would simply not exist.

Today we live in the golden age of the personal narrative, and the advent of powerful and omnipresent technology now allows us to share our stories with a worldwide audience. For perhaps the first time in human history all voices can be heard, all stories shared, and all lives celebrated via an iPhone or an Internet connection. What an amazing world it is.

However, the downside of this multiplicity of voices and viewpoints is that our common cultures and shared values are being rapidly obliterated by the combined opinions of an entire planet of individuals who are all asserting the primacy and correctness of their particular needs and wants. Now more people than ever—especially those who live in our large urban media centers—essentially curate their own idiosyncratic set of personal values from all that is available. Given the infinite possibilities inherent in the cafeteria-style morality now available via Google, that which separates or unites many people is less dependent that ever on national boundaries, traditional cultural beliefs, or religious institutions. There is instead a new globalized system in their places bypassing and supplanting that which bound us to our immediate neighbors for many, many previous centuries.

Given that traditions and institutions that once acted as arbiters and guidelines regarding taste and social norms have now been discarded in favor of what could—with perhaps a trace of irony—be called “crowdsourced individuality”, we find that those most comfortable with the norms of this fluid and ever-changing milieu—actors, entertainers, and media personalities—are now most often called upon to pronounce judgment on the issues facing us. What is truly remarkable about the world we live in today is that celebrities are routinely asked to offer opinions on matters of war and peace, the stewardship of resources, international diplomacy, immigration policy, and a host of other issues—and their opinions are dutifully reported as actual news on front pages around the globe. Think carefully for a moment: Do you recall anyone checking with Humphrey Bogart or Katherine Hepburn before we declared war on Japan after Pearl Harbor? Did President Kennedy worry whether Elvis was on his side during the Cuban Missile Crisis? That which, if you stop a moment to think, is utterly bizarre is now quite commonplace.

Unsurprisingly, some find shrugging off the societal shackles of the many millennia incredibly liberating—and insist that we all celebrate their personal paths toward whatever lifestyles or experiences will maximize their happiness. However, others obviously find the erasure of long-held cultural and moral norms to be either stressful or troubling. Nonetheless, ditching all that created a common humanity so a relative few can pursue their personal journeys does not seem a concern for the media elites that now drive our national conversations. Considering the matter broadly, we could question whether we are living a wonderful moment in human history or acting as the avatars of the end of national, cultural, and societal cohesion—but few seem to care to inquire further regarding this.

So this is where we are today. Our personal narratives and individual judgments have now become the unassailable—and sole—guides to how to live life for an ever growing portion of our global population. Therefore, conversations about what is right or wrong, honorable or disgraceful, and good or evil have become impossible. In fact, merely to assert that some behavior is right, wrong, honorable, disgraceful, good, or evil is to make a judgement about someone else’s idiosyncratic curation of their values that is often considered insulting or intolerant, which makes reasoned discussions about any issue or concern very, very difficult indeed.

I am not against embracing our personal narratives or pursuing personal self-fulfillment; I am, however, concerned that our zeal for elevating the needs of the individual over that of the group is a prescription for the unending paralysis of direction and purpose—at a time when definitive and perhaps painful actions are needed to meet a host of challenges. There will, given the enormity and complexity of the problems facing our nation and world, be a time in the very near future when cooperative sacrifices will be necessary for the common good, and I am not at all certain we are going to be able to muster up anything beyond endless bickering about the solutions—if we can even manage to agree on the problems. With apologies to William Butler Yeats, no civilization can continue to exist unless a boring, stable—and perhaps to some slightly judgmental—center is allowed to hold.

Is it really a problem that we are fixated with individual stories and personal dramas that grab our attention rather than national and global matters that will assuredly impact our country? Perhaps some comparisons will prove instructive. Think just a moment, for example, about the time wasted on news articles about the age disparity between the new President of France and his wife versus the coverage of the pension crisis right here in the United States. Have you heard more about recent—and ominous—test firings of ballistic missiles by North Korea or the marital or financial woes of any one of a dozen Hollywood stars? Would it, sad to say, be easier for most Americans to name the nine starters on their favorite baseball team or the nine Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court?

We might be able to muddle along wrapped in our oblivious self-absorption a bit longer, but I fear a day of reckoning is at hand that we are wholly unprepared to meet because many of us can see no further than the tips of our own lovely noses. This will be too bad for us—and for the generations to follow who will likely be stuck with cleaning up the many problems we happily ignored while updating our Facebook pages.

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.