Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird celebrates the 50th anniversary of its publication next year. This week, writer Malcolm Gladwell used the novel as a lens for understanding race, in a great The New Yorker article (link here).
Gladwell explains that readers of the novel have long understood one of its heroes—Atticus Finch—to be a paradigm of social justice. Finch is the white lawyer in the book who defends a black man whom no one else wants to defend. Finch’s justice resembles an optimistic, Christian morality. Non-defensive and rational, Finch thinks all people are worthy of forgiveness. Indeed, sometimes this ethic of forgiveness goes further than we’d expect it to: When a white man rallies a mob to murder a black man, Finch thinks empathy is the best reply. Even a murderous white man is “basically a good man,” Finch says, who “just has his blind spots.” And, when Finch loses his court case because the jury is racist, he accepts the ruling, acknowledging the blind spots in the whole system. If he holds out long enough, Finch trusts, people will eventually see Truth. He walks out of the courthouse with his own moral vision intact, setting an example of ethical, peaceful behavior for his children, some open souls in Maycomb, Alabama, and Harper Lee’s readers.
While Gladwell admits that Finch is an admirable guy, he also takes him to task. Good moral behavior is sweet, of course, but it’s just not sufficient behavior for a revolutionary, Gladwell writes. In fact, it’s Finch’s patience that reveals how conservative he is—or how he finds comfort in the status quo. Finch is nearly willfully blind to most dire aspects of social injustice. In a word, his central problem is that he sees the system as salvageable. He fails to understand “that racism…has a structural dimension,” or that change requires that organizations—not just people—change.
Gladwell draws a dichotomy between two types of social visionaries. (He’s actually rehashing George Orwell’s great essay “Charles Dickens,” which makes the same attack on Dickens that Gladwell makes on Finch. See this link.) On the one hand, Gladwell says, there are person-centered visionaries. Person-centered visionaries, like Finch, think that individuals are basically in charge of their own decisions, in any time and place. People have the power to shape their own behaviors; they should be listened to and forgiven when necessary. Change comes through human interactions in which we try to keep our minds open and clear. For a modern example, see Obama’s decisions to serve Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sergeant James Crowley beers on the Whitehouse lawn. Obama’s optimistic about preserving and improving the current system. He suggests that there’s room for three types of beer, and three perspectives, within our world as it is. Dialogue and understanding are the keys to progress here.
On the other hand, Gladwell says, there’s a structurally-oriented visionary. These revolutionaries think that damaged social systems require bigger systemic changes. A Whitehouse beer is essentially P.R., because in general, people can not “decide” to see justice. It’s not people, but social systems themselves, that perpetuate injustices. In this line of thinking, the worst racists are racists not because they refuse to be moral, but because social forces shape how they think. In turn, to change people, we need to skip right to bigger moves on the chess board: reorganizing organizations like schools, jails, laws, welfare programs, and the rest of it. In this line of thinking, too much faith in small-scale morality or in the individual’s choice is essentially stalling. Small dialogue is not quite productive revolutionary work.
Of course that dichotomy is far too clean. Systemic change, after all, starts somewhere pretty small, even often on a Whitehouse lawn. Indeed, our biggest revolutions began with a discussion between someone and someone. And it’s people, of course, who constructed these very systems we inhabit. But with his clean dichotomy, Gladwell is essentially asking us how deep we think our problems run. Do we live in a world where change can happen through one-on-one dialogue, or do we live in a world that perpetuates injustice by way of its structure (rich kids get the good schools; poor people have bad health care; immigrants do our manual labor but get no legal protection, etc..)?
I love the way Gladwell takes Finch to task. And if you get a chance to read that article—or if you have your own take on the state of the American justice in general, or on the American classic To Kill a Mockingbird—I’d love to hear your perspective.
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