When Atticus comes face-to-face with the political, religious, and social demon of racism, he does not mince his words. In a conversation with his brother Jack, he calls it “Maycomb’s usual disease”; and when he is forced to confront it at the trial of the black man falsely accused of rape and assault, he calmly and evenly delivers the truth of the accusers’ guilt to the jury: he notes that Mayella, a white woman, has kissed a black man—something that in that place and time was socially unacceptable—and now regrets her actions. To assuage her guilt, she has lied about what happened. Atticus is speaking directly to the jury, the court, the town, and illuminating the truth they all know in their hearts. Tom’s innocence is clear, and yet the only thing that will convict him is this time-honored code of racism.
Something occurred to me recently as I read these lines, something horrible and unconscionable but true. In the time and setting of the novel, the Deep South of the 1930s and beyond, it was deemed politically correct to practice this type of prejudice. Atticus draws the scorn of the town because he speaks honestly about the lies they are propagating with their political power, religious dogma, and social codes—his truth telling is intolerable to them.
Think about it for a moment: only those in the majority are able to deem what is politically correct. For that very reason, political correctness is a most dangerous weapon. While it once may have served its purpose in advancing a more respectful and compassionate dialogue, it has been reduced (by the power of politicians and mass media) to a form of demonization that marginalizes people in the way it was once intended to protect them. The last thing we need is one more weapon that stunts the little bit of true dialogue that ever takes place in the violent language of politics. In the dialogue of compassion, true biblical communication, we must feel free to have an honest exchange of ideas without being accosted or reduced to a caricature. Telling the truth, or at least sharing our perspectives on it, is the model of how we accomplish the aims of self-governance.