Thursday, November 1, 2007

To Kill a Mockingbird: Conclusion

"All types of identities--ethnic, national, religious, sexual or whatever else--can become our prison...The identity that we stand up for can enslave us and close us to the rest of the world." Murathan Mungan's words resonate with me strongly as I attempt to understand human history and modernity, and the future of our planet and our species.

The fictional trial and fate of Tom Robinson alludes to many overt and covert forces in individual psyche, and many direct and subtle processes of group behavior. Although To Kill a Mockingbird can be interpreted at many levels, one aspect stands out unmistakably for me: Be it race or interpersonal or inter-faith or international relations, identity, not 'free will' is a crucial factor in determining the nature of perception, the quality of emotion, and the direction of action. Even if it is accepted that will of all human beings is 'free,' the choices open to them are seriously constrained by racial and/or cultural identity.

One can find many statistically significant examples across cultures and ages in support of the above statement. For instance, according to a survey conducted by USA Today (October 9, 1995), 75% of White respondents thought O.J. Simpson to be guilty whereas only 25% of the Black respondents thought so. We mostly perceive reality the way we, as members of a given group, have been conditioned to perceive. Such conditioning and corresponding perceptions have been consolidated by enduring demands of evolution, and chronic considerations of survival and security, comfort and competition. While O.J. Simpson is still in the headlines, the Duke lacrosse players and Jena 6 or many similar events are symptoms of complex intertwined dynamics of power, perception and identity. As Anais Nin said: “We don't see things as they are. We see them as we are.”

Not just at the local level, but identity is at the center of world politics today. It underwrites elections and alliances, wars and revolutions. Identity factors are at work not just in business and politics but in art, education, media, parenting, preaching and personal affinities across cultures, if we analyze deeply enough.

But identity need not be destiny as Atticus Finch’s character clearly depicts. He was not only an ideal father but a just and true citizen of the world. Why human beings like Atticus Finch so rare in any culture, one wonders? Lawrence Kohlberg’s ideas of moral development as explicated in Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory are quite instructive in this regard:

"If we look at moral development in general we find that an infant at birth has not yet been socialized into the culture’s ethics and conventions; this is called the preconventional stage. It is also called egocentric, in that the infant’s awareness is largely self-absorbed. But as the young child begins to learn its culture’s rules and norms, it grows into the conventional stage of morals. This stage is also called ethnocentric, in that it centers on the child’s particular group, tribe, clan, or nation, and it therefore tends to exclude care for those not of one’s group. But at the next major stage of moral development, the postconventional stage, the individual’s identity expands once again, this time to include a care and concern for all peoples, regardless of race, color, sex, or creed, which is why this stage is also called worldcentric. Thus, moral development tends to move from “me” (egocentric) to “us” (ethnocentric) to “all of us” (worldcentric)—a good example of the unfolding stages of consciousness."

One can say that Harper Lee's portrayal of the jury which convicted Tom Robinson corresponds to ego and ethnocentric levels of moral development. Atticus, though himself a native of Maycomb, is not the archetypal Southerner but a version of Emersonian man, the individual who listens to the calling of what is universal and highest in the human soul--truth, love and justice. By cultivating and living such values undiscouraged and rearing children according to his lights, Atticus places principled action above self-interest while willingly accepting the difficult consequences of the right decision.

In the immortal character of Atticus, Harper Lee has given us what Albert Schweitzer dreamed of when he said: "Civilization can only revive when there shall come into being in a number of individuals a new tone of mind, independent of the prevalent one among the crowds, and in opposition to it -- a tone of mind which will gradually win influence over the collective one, and in the end determine its character. Only an ethical movement can rescue us from barbarism, and the ethical comes into existence only in individuals...A man is ethical only when life, as such, is sacred to him, that of plants and animals as that of his fellow men, and when he devotes himself helpfully to all life that is in need of help."

This post concludes our discussion of To Kill a Mockingbird. Thanks to all who posted comments. The November title is Jonathan Harr's The Lost Painting.

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