The Perils of Tolerance: Atticus Finch vs. John Brown

Malcolm Gladwell must really think he’s untouchable now, because he has taken to slamming the previously unslammble, Atticus Finch, in the latest issue of The New Yorker.

Atticus Finch, the hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, seems like a paragon of nobility and virtue. He is a single father who still manages to give his kids, Scout and Jem, one of best fictional parentings in all of literature. He defends a wrongly accused black man, Tom Robinson, despite the stigma it brings. Legal scholar Steven Lubet claims that, “No real-life lawyer has done more for the self-image or public perception of the legal profession than the hero of Harper Lee’s novel.” He is even described as having “Christ-like goodness and wisdom.”

I, for one, have never been a big fan of Mockingbird, having never even finished it in high school. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s line in Capote— “Frankly, I don’t see what all the fuss is about”—really resonates with me. Nevertheless, even I think Finch is pretty irreproachable.

Gladwell’s point, however, is that Finch represents a brand of Southern liberalism that wasn’t uncommon in that era, and possibly kept Jim Crow alive longer than it would have survived on its own. Finch himself is decidedly not a racist, but he co-exists with bigotry that would be considered reprehensible today. Just as Finch is rational and compassionate about the case of Tom Robinson, he is rational and compassionate about the racism that exists in his community. He tells his daughter that it is not okay to hate those in Maycomb who would wrongfully condemn Robinson because it is never okay to hate anyone (even Hitler).

In Finch’s worldview, racism is unfortunate but understandable, like using “literally” incorrectly, or not cooking your own meals (except presumably slightly worse). Now, compassionate understanding is certainly admirable, but don’t some things warrant visceral hatred, and isn’t racism one of them? Remember, this isn’t contemporary racism, in which the end result is insensitive language or unfair standardized tests; this is someone who is wrongly accused of rape. Should that really be tolerated?

It is an uneasy pill to swallow, much like the reception someone like John Brown gets, only inverted. Brown is, in retrospect, a very appealing figure: He was so repulsed by the evils of slavery that he sought to violently overthrow it. Henry David Thoreau compared him to Jesus Christ shortly before his execution, calling him a martyr who gave his life for a neglected cause.

At the same time, though, Brown was, essentially, a terrorist. The very same arguments that Thoreau (and others) use to defend him—that he believed in his own righteousness, that a majority can never rightfully suppress what is just, that God was on his side—can equally be applied to people who blow up abortion clinics, or even Osama bin Laden.

Brown’s route diametrically opposed Finch’s. Instead of tolerance and compassion, he used violence, and he is generally not as well regarded as Finch. Most people now view Brown as well-intentioned, but misguided, even though history (if not God, because magic’s not real) is on his side. Finch, on the other hand, is still pretty much revered, Gladwell’s hatchet job notwithstanding.

The reason people most often cite for endorsing compassion and tolerance, as opposed to outright violence, is because in Brown’s way of doing things, people end up dead. People, in my experience, are generally very staunchly anti-death, even if we are talking about slaveowners and Strom Thurmond.

I don’t think this argument really holds up, though. Yes, people die at the hands of the Browns of the world, but, unless you endorse complete pacifism, at some point violence is necessary when we are dealing with evil: The Civil War was, according to most people, a net positive, despite being the bloodiest war in American history, and we probably regret not getting violent with Hitler sooner, if anything. The fact that these are government actions are important, of course, but shouldn’t really affect the ultimate judgment— government approval does not make moral legitimacy. 

I think the real reason people like Finch more than Brown is that Finch is much more acceptable to moderates, and most people are moderate. History has judged slavery and racism pretty harshly, but many of Finch’s peers were, as Lee illustrates, pretty neutral on the subject—they weren’t the ones accusing Robinson, but they didn’t see the point of getting all worked up about it.

Similarly, there are issues that are controversial today that I suspect future generations will think it nonsensical, if not downright reprehensible, that we weren’t more adamantly opposed to: the Iraq War, nuclear proliferation, environmental destruction, the Jonas Brothers. It’s much easier and more convenient to achieve these goals (or different ones, depending on your political beliefs) by being “tolerant” and working through the process: It’s far less risky and less of a time commitment than committing to a violent overthrow of the government (and proportionally less effective).

If this is really why we hold Atticus Finch in higher esteem than John Brown, and I suspect it is, then it is really shameful. Finch is definitely more likable than Brown—he is polite and respectful and a good father, and Brown is basically insane. But none of that is really relevant to morality. If something is categorically bad, it should not be tolerated, no matter how convenient it is to co-exist with it. As Dante supposedly (but not actually) said, “The darkest circle in Hell is reserved for those who, in times of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality.”

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2 responses to this post.

  1. […] heard a variant of this question posed many a time, most recently by John S. If you look back at any slice of history, there were certain human behaviors, beliefs, and […]

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  2. Posted by Joseph Hwang on October 21, 2010 at 3:00 PM

    Atticus Finch, Father of Law or Pushover?

    In the summer of 1960, Harper Lee published the historical fiction novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, which received raving acclamation from critics. Time Magazine stated that Lee’s novel was “Tactile brilliance… has an edge that cuts through cant… astonishing.” The main question is “What made this novel so very different from others?” The answer lies within the plethora of fictitious characters Ms. Lee conjured up. Although the narration is given by Ms. Scout Finch, the focal literary tension is placed on the shoulders of her father, Atticus Finch. Steadily, Atticus, who is a state lawyer, has become a judicial icon, an entity of immeasurable influence matched only by the likes of Confucius or Martin Luther King Jr. However, in the article “The Courthouse Ring” by Malcolm Gladwell, Gladwell accuses Finch of falling into the worthless footsteps of Former Alabama Governor Jim Folsom. On the contrary, I defend Finch from any heinous accusations made by Mr. Gladwell because I truly believe Atticus Finch is THE role model for modern attorneys.
    Atticus Finch, father of two, is appointed defense attorney for the controversial court case Ewell vs. Robinson. Mr. Tom Robinson is the good-everyday-religious black man who is accused of raping Mayella of the Ewells, who are considered the white trash of Maycomb County. Now this is where Finch is criticized; Finch’s manner towards Negroes is similar to that of Jim Folsom, who uses morality to mitigate racism. Gladwell asserts that Finch is a pushover who lightly regards the use of law to bring necessary justice. Therefore, he wrote “On what side was Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch? Finch defended Tom Robinson, the black man falsely accused of what in nineteen-thirties Alabama was the gravest of sin, the rape of a white woman. In the years since, he has become a role model for the legal profession. But he’s much closer to Folsom’s side of the race question than he is to the civil-rights activists who were arriving in the South as Lee wrote her novel.” (Gladwell, 2) Gladwell also blames Atticus for eventually losing the case.
    In Finch’s closing statement, he said to the jury,” But there is one way in this country in which all men are created equal- there is one human institution that makes a pauper the equal of a Rockefeller, the stupid man the equal of an Einstein, and the ignorant man the equal of any college president. That institution, gentlemen, is a court.” (Lee, 205)It is true that Finch uses words to invoke the inner sense of justice within. But is this a weak gesture? What are lawyers supposed to do?
    To acknowledge the questioning of facts is human nature, but what Gladwell is trying to accomplish is simply illogical. Gladwell does an admirable job thinking “outside-the-box”, however, his arguments are one sided and narrow minded. An example of Gladwell’s assumptions is necessary to understand the full context of his argument. Midway through his article, he uses a certain Mr. Lubet’s argument saying, “The only potentially exculpatory evidence Finch can come up with is that Mayella’s bruises are on the right side of her face while Robinson’s left arm, owing to a childhood, injury is useless. Finch presents this fact with great fanfare. But, as Lubet argues, it’s not exactly clear why a strong right-handed man can’t hit a much smaller woman on the right side of her face. Couldn’t she have turned her head? Couldn’t he have hit her with a backhanded motion? Given the situation, Finch designs his defense, Lubet says,” to exploit a virtual catalog of misconceptions and fallacies about r ape, each one calculated to heighten mistrust of the female complainant.” (Gladwell, 4) Is it not more likely that a left-handed man hit her? Besides, the main argument in Finch’s cross examinations is to allow the jury to imagine the sort of life style the Ewell’s pertain. Gladwell and Lubet are just attempting to find major flaws in Finch’s arguments; however, so far they have FAILED dismally. As it is stated in Chapter 18 of To Kill a Mockingbird, “Do you love your father, Miss Mayella?”was his next. “Love, him, watcha mean?” “I mean,is he good to you, is he easy to get along with?” “He’s tollable, ‘cept when-“ Except when?” (Lee,183) This clearly shows that Mayella’s home life is absolutely horrific. Incest and abuse are implied. Atticus used excellent word choice during the case to stimulate pity and sentiment for Tom.
    In a time without advanced CSI technology, Finch uses the resources available to him commendably. Gladwell complains that Finch failed to use correct law; however, to perform as he does with a partial jury in 1930’s Alabama is a Herculean feat. There is no reason why Atticus shouldn’t retain his status. I rest my case.

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