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January 26, 2021 | Brent Harris
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is an excellent book in many ways. It zooms in on the unique beauty of childhood while emphasizing the importance of listening and understanding.
Atticus Finch is widely considered to be one of the bravest and thoughtful characters in any piece of fiction. He is a uniquely empathetic man who encourages his children to look beyond themselves and even puts his own life in danger for the sake of Tom Robinson, the black man he defends in court. Generally, the white townsfolk of Maycomb, Alabama in the throes of The Great Depression do not approve of Atticus, a white man, defending a black man against a white woman. They believe he is favoring a black person over a white person, and in their perspective, that’s just plain wrong.
Early in the story, Atticus explains to his daughter Scout why he has chosen to defend Tom Robinson despite what many white Maycomb residents think of this decision: “If I didn’t, I couldn’t hold up my head in town, I couldn’t represent this county in the legislature, I couldn’t even tell you or Jem not to do something again.”
Atticus is depicted as wise and compassionate. He puts himself in other people’s shoes. He recognizes that there is a difference between listening and waiting for your turn to talk. He loves other people graciously and selflessly, despite their blind spots and flaws: teaching his children to see how an old woman’s spite stems from her loneliness and drug addiction, treating the town recluse with dignity and respect.
However, there is at least one time in “To Kill a Mockingbird” where I don’t think Atticus gets it quite right. At one point, Scout and Atticus have an interchange about people’s opinions regarding the Tom Robinson case. Scout thinks that Atticus must be wrong about the whole thing, because that’s what everyone at school and in town has been telling her. Atticus says, “They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions.”
Much of what Atticus says in “To Kill a Mockingbird” is beautiful and thought-provoking, but when he says that everyone is “entitled to full respect for their opinions,” he gets it wrong.
Over the course of the school year, teachers at Mustard Seed have been learning that it’s not quite enough to be simply “not racist;” we must be anti-racist, or we’re just allowing racism to persist and grow. In a discussion with my seventh grade cohort, Mae and Xavier mentioned that respecting people’s opinions is one thing, but when opinions belittle human beings, the situation becomes a human rights issue. When one person’s opinion disrespects another person’s existence, bystanders are offered a choice: to respect an opinion and malign another human being, or to uphold human dignity as more sacred than an individual perspective. Disrespect for human dignity—on the terms of race, gender, sexual orientation, or any other measure—requires an immediate reaction.
When Atticus defends the respect entitled to the white people of Maycomb, he is attempting to honor their humanity. But does he honor Tom Robinson’s? To use Atticus’ own experiment in empathy, what might it mean to walk around a day in Tom Robinson’s shoes?
In the story, the white people of Maycomb are “entitled to full respect for their opinions.” Tom Robinson is entitled to an unfair trial with a racist jury that convicted an innocent man and sends him to a desperate death.
Atticus wants Scout to understand that the people of Maycomb have a right to be understood. But Tom Robinson is a Maycomb citizen too, and Atticus seems to have forgotten about Robinson’s right to freedom and to life.
Atticus tells his children to walk around in other people’s shoes: that empathy is important. But there is a difference between offering understanding and allowing injustice to persist. As Mae and Xavier mentioned, when it comes to issues of human rights and dignity, there is no sitting back and respecting opinion; it’s a time for action.