I am the youngest of three boys raised by a working single mom in the 1960s and1970s. We lived toward the poor end of the spectrum, so much of my childhood was spent devoid of television (back in those days, TV was considered a luxury, not a necessity). Due to these circumstances, I was well into my teen years before I encountered the idea that women could be anything other than strong, intelligent and capable. It still baffles me when I encounter people who start from an assumption that women are not strong, intelligent and capable. Especially because so many of them actually consider themselves to be feminists.
Needless to say, I am often misunderstood by people when the discussion turns to sexism and women’s issues (yes – I am allowed to discuss these things even though I have a penis). Usually it’s because I don’t assume women need protection. And because I assume they are relatively intelligent adult human beings, so when they do stupid things my initial response is other than “Oh, you poor thing!”. In fact, I have a universal response to stupidity that is colorblind and genderless. Those of you who know me have encountered it frequently.
So I generally try to avoid these discussions, especially on the Internet. When I look at a situation and say “Why in hell did she do something so dumb?” I immediately get attacked by a half-dozen or so ‘feminists’ who demand to know why I’m “blaming the victim” and/or being such a sexist. Which leaves me wondering why these ‘feminists’ think their role is to gallantly provide protection for someone they claim to consider a strong, intelligent, capable equal.
A large part of the problem is the simple fact that the Internet is a piss-poor vehicle for human interaction and communication. This is no fault of the Internet but is rather due to the fact that most humans are not very good at communicating. And extremely few of us are skilled at communicating using only the written word. This is why people who are good at it get paid for doing so.
So when we do try to discuss important issues on the Internet we usually screw it up. As far as I can tell, the overwhelming majority of the ‘discussions’ on the Internet about sexism consist solely of people pointing out instances of sexism and screaming “Look everyone! A bad thing!”. Just in case we didn’t already know that sexism is bad.
I, on the other hand, want to know why the strongest, most intelligent, most capable, most badass woman on the face of the planet still occasionally needs someone else to tell her she’s pretty. And I think maybe this is the kind of thing we should be talking about. The parts of the issue that are complicated and that maybe make us a little uncomfortable.
Which brings us to Go Set a Watchman.
As should be obvious, the following will contain spoilers (although probably not anything you haven’t already heard). If you haven’t read Go Set A Watchman and intend to, you might want to stop reading at this point (I’m a Map Dork, so as a buffer I’ll throw in a map [found here]).
Still here? Good. I’ll get right to the point: Atticus Finch is a racist. I know this is not easy to accept, but it is, in fact, even evident in To Kill a Mockingbird (although not obvious. That is reserved for Go Set a Watchman). Before you get too upset, though, let me explain a couple things. First off, Atticus Finch is a racist, but only by today’s standards. By the standards of his own time (To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in the mid-1930s, when Atticus was in his early 50s. Go Set a Watchman takes place in the mid-1950s) he was something else entirely. Second, Atticus was what I think of as a ‘benevolent racist’. Unlike most of his contemporaries he didn’t consider black people to be subhuman (yes – I said black people. Political correctness is the process of white people sitting around deciding what the new labels should be. I don’t subscribe), nor did he in any way consider them to be undesirable or even unlikable. He just didn’t consider them to be equal. In To Kill a Mockingbird Jean Louise (a.k.a. Scout) states:
“Atticus says cheatin’ a colored man is ten times worse than cheatin’ a white man”
Later, Atticus himself says:
“There’s nothing more sickening to me than a low-grade white man who’ll take advantage of a Negro’s ignorance.”
Atticus’ racism is there, if you have eyes to see it. Go Set a Watchman just makes it more blatant and obvious. But it’s not any different. Atticus is not any different. His form of racism is a condescending one. He views black people very much as though they are children. Children who need our (read: white people’s) help.
Jean Louise, however, is not racist. She is described (by herself, in the interest of full disclosure) as ‘colorblind’. Despite growing up in Alabama in the 1930s and 1940s. How did this happen? Because she was raised by Atticus Finch. To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman are, in fact, two parts of one story. Jean Louise Finch’s story. The story of her relationship with her father. And how Scout, like every child, eventually comes to terms with her father’s humanity. How she finally realizes that Atticus Finch has as much right to be flawed as the rest of us.
Jean Louise eventually accepts the fact that her father is human and he therefore has faults. And she realizes that he is not defined by his faults. For his part, Atticus learns that he has succeeded in the task that all good parents set for themselves: he has raised a child who is better than he is (which, by the way, may not have happened if Atticus hadn’t actively defied the dictates of his family and community to allow his daughter to grow up to be exactly the person she desired to be). At the end of the day, though, Atticus lived in a time and place that was both extremely racist and extremely sexist, and he was years ahead of his time on both these issues. But not immune to them. And – truth be told – I’m okay with that.
I am finding, however, that many of the people I know are not. I am a little surprised and dismayed by how many of my friends are actively avoiding reading Go Set a Watchman (some of them have even concocted elaborate reasons for it). I wish I could say the reason for this is simply because they don’t want to face the fact that Atticus is a racist. The truth is that they don’t want to face what Atticus Finch’s racism represents.
We here in the Northeast live in a fuzzy pink bubble wherein we think we have largely beaten racism (we are wrong, and we are also not alone in this). Because of this, we believe that there are precisely two types of racists in this world: bad people and stupid people. We honestly believe that at least one of those two conditions must be in place before racism can even exist, let alone thrive. So the idea of an inherently decent and intelligent person (like Atticus Finch) who is also a racist is complicated and it makes us uncomfortable and we don’t want to look at it so we instead decide that it can’t exist.
Which only serves to prove that we are failing to understand the nature of racism.
See, racism is not rational. This is why it does not respond to reason. Nobody sits down, analyzes all the available evidence, then concludes that the only logical course of action is to be a racist. Racism arrives through a different vector, and for this reason we cannot combat it effectively with logic and reason. Also for this reason, otherwise decent and intelligent people can sometimes turn out to be racists. This invariably occurs during childhood. If you spend the bulk of your formative years surrounded by a certain way of thinking, there’s a decent chance you will come to believe that said certain way of thinking is normal and/or proper. Sexism often procreates by this method as well. As does religion.
Relax. Before you throw a hissy and accuse me of badmouthing religion, take a moment to look up the word ‘rational’. And know that most of the religions of the world will back me up on this. One does not reason one’s way to God. Religion is not logical nor does it desire to be. Belief is arrived at through other means.
This is why belief systems (good or bad) need to be kept in check via legislation. We cannot carefully explain the facts and then expect racists to become colorblind. We cannot throw logic at sexists and then expect them to suddenly support paycheck equality. We cannot reason with the religious right and then expect them to see the light in regard to marriage equality. It simply will not happen and thinking otherwise is just plain dumb. We need Affirmative Action. We need the Nineteenth Amendment. We need separation of church and state (make no mistake, folks – the Founding Drunkards were not concerned about freedom of religion. They were concerned about freedom from religion). Rationality cannot be applied to belief systems, so the only recourse a rational society has is to protect the general populace from them.