Civility and compassion in public discourse? Walking away from the Last Word (an excerpt from TMP)
I listened to a fellow educatorlamentlast week that ourstudents no longer understand how to civilly disagree with one another. I thought about his comment this weekend as I observed the newsfrom Wisconsin and watched the Sunday morning punditsyell ateach otherover the direction of our country’s politics. More than anytime I can remember, we seem to be fighting to have the perfect soundbite, the winning argument, thelast (and loudest) word. I am beginning to think the most relevant and pressing lesson from To Kill a Mockingbird is found in how its hero, Atticus Finch, chooses tocommunicate with his community. I wrote about this extensivelyin The Mockingbird Parables, so today I would like to share a timely and applicableexcerpt from “The Parable of the Last Word”:
Bob Ewell stopped Atticus Finch on the steps of the post office, spat in his face, and threatened him in the presence of many onlooking town folks. Discussing it later with Jem, Atticus explains that Ewell is simply the kind of person who must always have the last word, particularly when he believes he’s been wronged. Atticus says Ewell meant what he said in the moment, but the public threat was nothing more than an effort to save face. While Atticus failed to rescue Tom Robinson from the clutches of a racist jury, he succeeded in allowing Bob Ewell to reveal himself as a liar to all of Maycomb. Atticus is explaining Bob’s threat to Jem and Scout to alleviate their uneasiness with the confrontation. The Ewells are uneducated and isolated from the rest of Maycomb County, and Atticus is pointing out that this affects how they communicate. Of the many differences that separate Atticus from his antagonist, possibly the most noticeable is the manner in which he interacts with others.
We have been given no greater ability to heal or to harm one another than through the power of our words. Every culture has a saying about the fierce impact of the spoken word. The wisdom writers of the Old Testament remind us that “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Prov. 18:21 nkjv). As a writer and an educator, I am deeply cognizant of the power of words. We certainly can speak death and life, hope and despair, togetherness or division into the lives of others. I can recount many stories about the power of language: one friend developed an eating disorder because of the harsh words her father delivered, and one pastor lost his ministry because of bitter rumors spread by an elder in his church. It is clear to me that our mouths are powerful tools. It seems more difficult to escape the stories about people of faith and our irresponsibility with language, simply because we should know better. I talked with a fellow educator brought to tears by the harshness of e-mails and phone messages left by a parent—who she later discovered was the head pastor of a large church just a block from her school. I am reminded of a holiday shopping experience with my children standing at the jewelry counter, where we witnessed a verbal assault so egregious that it could have been an episode of Jerry Springer. The volume and tone of the shopper’s language insinuated the gravity of a life-and- death situation; the object of her ire was the sale price of a cross necklace.
I wonder sometimes if the frequency of the language we exchange without human contact via e-mail, texting, Twitter, or cell phones has not desensitized us. Communication is a deeply spiritual matter, but there is often no flesh and blood visible when we are exchanging words this way. More and more, we operate as if we were truly islands unto ourselves, as isolated as the Ewells. Yet we were made to live in community with each other. Whatever the reason, it seems to me that we have developed an easy violence with our language. We are becoming a culture who, like Bob Ewell, must always have “some kind of comeback.” However, one of the most profound aspects of To Kill a Mockingbird is discovered when we notice that our heroes and heroines are not people driven to have the last word.
When Scout asks Atticus why most of the town thinks he is wrong to defend Tom Robinson, Atticus first explains that other people are entitled to their own beliefs and should be respected for their opinions, even if one doesn’t agree with them. But he also points out it is personally important for him to stay true to his own principles, even if he draws the disapproval of his neighbors. Considering the racism displayed by the people of the town, Atticus’s explanation about respecting his neighbors’ opinions might seem a little confusing. We all would affirm that we deeply admire the character of Atticus Finch and the way he conducts himself, although, frankly, I am not optimistic that if Atticus were a real person in today’s culture he would be acknowledged as such an admirable protagonist. Turn on your television set, read different news sites, listen to politicians, open up a blog or two, spend a little time observing at virtually any place of business, or maybe even attend a church board meeting: we are becoming a society that values having the last and loudest word. Our heroes are the people who prove to everyone, at any cost, that they are correct. It doesn’t matter how raucous, how terse, or how violent the communication must be—it seems we are willing to join the fray at the expense of anyone, if it will only advance our political, religious, economic, or personal agenda.
I am certain that Atticus would go quite unnoticed by popular culture. He would not be the proud winner of the argument or a man known for always getting his way. He would never be the loudest voice in the room, and he would certainly never brandish the truth like a weapon to beat opposing viewpoints into submission. He would appear reserved on the periphery of our lunch tables, business counters, classrooms, and church pews. He would demonstrate communicative qualities foreign to today’s culture. And I sincerely doubt he would be forcefully drawing attention to himself, or boasting of his accomplishments to gain everyone’s respect. His language would probably be perceived as too respectful of the opinions of others, and too conscious of his relationship to his neighbors to attract our admiration.
I wonder if the aggressive nature of our communication, our forceful affirmations, and our need to be right more than to be connected is quickly and not so quietly undermining our inherent need for community. We Christian folks, whose single purpose it is to spread hope in the world, seem to be some of the worst offenders. We have moved from being a people who were named “little Christs” by the popular culture of Rome, to people who are exceedingly preoccupied with labeling and promoting ourselves as followers of Christ. The Bible is full of advice and warnings about the power of language, with over twenty references to communicating with one another in the Proverbs alone. The fascinating aspect of the characters in the Mockingbird narrative (Atticus in particular) is that they model this same type of biblical wisdom. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul encourages us to “let your conversation be always full of grace” (4:6 niv). James spends an extravagant amount of time in his letter addressing the power of communication: “My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (1:19 niv).
The characters of To Kill a Mockingbird model a much different ethic when it comes to communication and truth telling than what is practiced in our culture today. It is necessary for people of faith to model responsible communication in our daily lives if we are to fulfill our obligation to be reflections of the nature of God. Our call is to speak words not born of our own desires and agendas, but words that give life and encourage community with our neighbors. We should approach each communication with an awareness of the divine nature of our interaction. There is a steady undercurrent of grace in the way Atticus and some of the other characters in the novel speak, which is something from which we can certainly learn.