Monday, 10 August 2009

Malcolm Gladwell gets it so, so wrong

Malcolm Gladwell sits in the Maycomb courthouse where the local lawyer, the dashing and ruminating Atticus Finch, is defending a local black man against the charge of rape. To Malcolm's left sit Scout and Jem, who from their chatter it is clear that they are the son and daughter of Finch. Tom Robinson, the man charged with a heinous and violent crime against Mayella Ewell, is forlorn and confused; he is clearly numb with fear.

Amazingly, despite overwhelming evidence that Robinson could not have been responsible for the beating that Ewell suffered, he is found guilty. This staggering outcome is greeted with equanimity by Malcom Gladwell. He dismisses Finch's defence:
The putative rape victim, Mayella Ewell, has bruises on her face, and the supporting testimony of her father, Robert E. Lee Ewell. Robinson concedes that he was inside the Ewell house, and that some kind of sexual activity took place. 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.
He doesn't stop there. He has Finch himself in his sights who he dismisses as a well-meaning but ultimately reactionary southern liberal. While he may have human compassion that is greater than others of his southern brethren, he is reconciled to status quo- Jim Crow segregation. What's worse is that Finch invites us to replace one set of prejudices with another. In tearing apart the testimonies of Bob and Mayella Ewell, he preys upon their ill-educated, poor working-class nature: a crime to these christian, liberal southerners that is unforgivable. Racial prejudice should be wrenched from our hearts- though not necessarily from our society- but class disdain is acceptable in this paternalistic and parochial world view. Such is Gladwell's charge.

But how can Malcolm Gladwell question Finch's case and in so doing impugn the integrity and motivation of Atticus Finch on the basis of the evidence that is presented to us in To Kill a Mocking Bird? He may have be sat up in the public- colored- gallery next to Scout and Jem but he missed something. lf he were applying the analysis of his book Blink he might question why his sub-conscious and conscious interacted in such a way as to miss out a key piece of exculpatory evidence. What was it?

Well, Malcolm Gladwell mentions the bruising the right side of her face and says that was the only exculpatory evidence presented. Admittedly, as Gladwell points out, a man with only a strong right arm could have beaten Mayella Ewell in this way. What he fails to mention- and this is where his article's argument collapses with a flourish- is the bruising all around her neck. Now, even though the Sheriff Heck Tate asserts the slimness of Mayella Ewell's neck, are we really meant to believe that a one-handed man could inflict these injuries? One hand around a neck? Try it. Around a cat's neck maybe but a human neck? Of course not.

Any right thinking juror would not have convicted Tom Robinson. But he was convicted.

Where Gladwell does have an argument is the use of Atticus Finch of a set of prejudices against the Ewell's- i.e. that they were the 1930s equivalent of trailer park trash. However, there is more than a little evidence of the violent and hate-filled nature of Bob Ewell- he goes on to attack Scout and Jem and others. Whereas the evidence against Tom Robinson is flimsy to say the very least. So ultimately, Gladwell attempts to twang our guilt but is not justified in doing so- not on the basis of this trial anyhow.

Yes, Atticus Finch was presenting the best case he possibly could. That's his job. He's a lawyer. He doesn't 'grapple with the structural dimension' of racism. Too right. His job was to represent his client. What does Malcolm Gladwell expect Atticus Finch to do? Give an 'I have a dream' speech on the Maycomb courthouse floor? How would that have helped Tom Robinson?

No, what Atticus Finch does is something far more subtle and more important than that. He attempts to humanise his client. The strongest challenge to injustice is empathy. If you give the outsider a story, a personality, a life, we can't help but empathise. Once you have empathy, you are moving rapidly along the road to equality. On what basis do you discriminate against people you feel to be like you, your equals?

More broadly, that is what Harper Lee does in the wonderful tale. She dignifies the outsider. Tom Robinson and Boo Radley are the obvious cases: the black man and the recluse with possible mental illness. That is is the powerful force for change.

What changed America? What moved it from racial segregation to legal equality? The obvious answer is civil and voting rights. However, it was empathy and the moral force that comes from that that led to the legislation that was passed in 1963 and 1965. It is easy to point to Brown v Board of Education, Topeka which reversed the previous legal sanctioning of separate but equal under the 1896 Plessy v Ferguson case, as the starting gun for the civil rights movement. But the legal route is a long one.

Personally, I see events in the following year, 1955, as the moment when Jim Crow finally got his comeuppance. The brutal murder of Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi brought the violence and injustice of southern racism into full national view. There are obvious parallels between the fate of Till and Robinson; both their ordeals came about through liaisons with white women and the reaction of their men. Later that year came Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycotts. This brought to national prominence one Reverend Martin Luther King.

His Southern Christian Leadership Conference used protest and moral persuasion in a jujutsu on the violence perpetrated by the likes of Governor Wallace of Alabama and Bull Connor. The non-violence of the movement- at Birmingham, Alabama, Selma and elsewhere- was its power. Its message was moral. Legislative changes were the objective. Empathy, mass mobilisation and morality were the means. All this was lifted to the heavens by the majestic oratory of King himself. Are we to believe that the Congressmen and women who voted to change civil and voting rights in 1963 and 1965 having failed to do so for generations were suddenly swayed by abstract legalism? No, it was the unanswerable moral case for equality and justice built upon the sturdy foundations of empathy.

And in that courtroom in Maycomb, Malcolm Gladwell while not concentrating quite as closely as he might also missed another performance of stunning oratory, a moral and Christian insistence that Tom Robinson be granted the dignity that goes with being a man. He doesn't throw Mayella Ewell overboard as Gladwell suggests. He sympathises with her. But that sympathy can only go so far when a man's life is at stake.

So Atticus Finch is- in a small town Alabama way- a monumental and heroic figure. Do not underestimate the power of To Kill a Mocking Bird- published in 1960 with the film starring Gregory Peck following close on its tail in 1962. The timing couldn't have been better. In itself, it became part of the moral persuasion for change. The Atticus Finchs of the world, far from contributing to perpetuation of Jim Crow segregation, challenged it in their little but powerful ways. What was the world view of Jem and Scout after seeing their father in action? It could be nothing more than understanding the injustice around them. Would they despair? Perhaps. Would they recognise change and possibility of change if they saw it? Perhaps. But those kids growing in the 1930s deep South could not fail to understand the moral force of their father.

As it happens, Atticus Finch is a fictional character. But millions of us have become Jems and Scouts under his tutelage and influence. Malcolm Gladwell is an iconoclast and never fails to intrigue, inspire, and challenge. But on Atticus Finch Malcolm, you've just got it so, so wrong.

And as a treat, here is the closing statement of Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 version of To kill a Mocking Bird.

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