On the danger of standing ovations

<< If you haven’t read Go Set A Watchman this post is full of spoilers.>>

My introduction to To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee was sitting in a hot tenth-grade English class, in South Africa, while deep South dialect was read slowly, out loud, in English-South-African accents. We were doing The Cambridge System, which, if anything, is thorough. That means that instead of reading five books on your own and talking about the big ideas all together, you read one book, out loud, in class, and pick it apart line by line. I digress.

But it never struck me as strange to be reading this home-grown American tale in the middle of South Africa, because there were so many things we could relate to. It was talking about standing for your conscience, and what it’s like to come to understand your world is marked up by race, and what moral courage is, and how irritating older brothers can be, and a hundred other things that all made sense even in my South African world. It made sense because it was a really good story.

And then the hipsters co-opted Atticus and started naming their kids after him, and then Go Set a Watchman came out and people hated it. They hated it because it wasn’t as good of a story, and besides, beloved Atticus turned out to be a racist, and it actually only got published because Lee was already famous. (Go Set A Watchman is the book Lee supposedly wrote first, and her publisher said, “I like those scenes where she’s a kid, do more with that,” and out came To Kill a Mockingbird). Since I’m a little late to book-club books, I only got around to reading Watchman last week.

Guys, I loved that book because I’m so Scout. And don’t tell me this book is terrible and was only published because Lee was already famous–Scout’s rant at the end is better than most of the white antiracist articles that Huffington Post puts out every other week. The reason this book is coming out now is because it never would have survived three minutes in 1960. It survives in 2016, because we agree with Scout about everything. And we hate it in 2016, because, like Scout, we want to think of Atticus as a friendly progressive, not a complicated and culture-bound 1960’s Southerner. All of that complicatedness messes with our minds just as much as it messes with Scout’s.

Most of Watchman is from Scout’s perspective, and although it’s not first person, it could be. It’s a Scout who grew up in Maycomb but has been living for the past six years in New York City, making infrequent trips home. She’s appalled when she comes home this time to find that her Father and boyfriend sit on the Citizens Council created by white people who were nervous about black people getting the vote (and the ruckus caused by the NAACP, and The Feds coming in to force everybody to hurry up and get on their Civil Right’s bandwagon).

And Scout flips out. Her wonderful, loving father—who taught her to love other people and treat everyone with dignity and respect, who planted the seeds in her and made her who she is (someone who is decidedly for Civil Rights) — is a racist.

Scout literally throws up, she can’t reconcile these two ideas. When she finally hashes it out with Atticus, she packs up to drive back to NYC.


So, here’s why I’m Scout. She’s 26 (okay, I’m basically 26), she was raised by this loving family who planted all these beliefs in her, she has always been a bit socially awkward, she has really firm ideas about justice and right and wrong, and she want’s to make the world a better place. And when she sees something that goes against that, she gives a passionate rant and then runs away. That’s me to a T. 

Except, the problem is, I feel like Watchman, just like most of the white privilege posts coming out on Slate, is a bit self-righteous. It’s right, don’t misunderstand me, but it’s also self-righteous. It knows it’s right, so it doesn’t try very hard to persuade.

Maybe it’s my evangelical upbringing, but I do the passionately wanting to convert people to my way of thinking + being right = self-righteousness thing pretty well. I’m not one of those “I don’t care” liberals who wants to let people just do whatever the heck they want (that’s the tea-party, come on people, get with it)*. Social justice issues like racism or xenophobia or economic inequality are in the same category of moral indignation for me that the best hell-fire preachers put people drinking alcohol or getting divorced. I want to convert people. I love George Bernard Shaw, English people hate him because they say his plays border on propaganda. Whatever. Give me Mrs. Warren’s Profession, and Vindication of the Rights of Women any day.

I kind of dropped out of English and into Sociology because of that. I got tired of people arguing about whether it was art or not. Who cares?! Basically, I want to change the world. Specifically, I want to change the world to be more to my way of thinking, because my way of thinking (let’s face it) is right. And in sociology we have facts that prove there are unjust systems at play. We have harnessed science and can show you (with statistical significance and high confidence levels) that black people are discriminated against in hiring, university admissions and daily interactions in society, that women earn less, that even if poor people work hard they don’t get ahead, that climate change is real, that …. You get the picture.


But we’ve proved all these things to ourselves, in the bubble of the educated establishment, and then squished it into 150 word op-ed pieces on liberal online websites where people will agree with us anyway. Or comics.  We’re right. It’s true. Duh.

But if it’s right and true and we haven’t convinced anyone who thinks differently, does it really matter?

(If an unarmed black person gets shot and killed by the police, in the middle of a forest, and no white working class man was walking next to him in conversation and saw it with his own eyes, did that really happen? Questions that keep me up at night.)

Or, more to the point, do we ever discover things that go against what we think are true and chase those trails down to see where they lead? Do we even think of the questions that might have uncomfortable answers? It’s so lovely to point this argument at other people, but it applies left, right, and centre. 

I went to this church at one point where the pastors would spend so much time talking about famous TV preachers who had poor theology, that I honestly wanted to interrupt one Sunday and say, “Look, we’re all here listening to you guys, not to Joel Olsteen, so I think we’ve got this part down, can we move on to the part about how we need to get over being racist, or that we’re a super-unsafe place for gay people, or something that is actually an issue in this congregation?” We call this type of thing “preaching to the choir” in the Christian world. We’re safe in our tribes and we give ourselves the impression that we’re learning things, but really we’re preaching to the choir. We’re distancing ourselves from the out-group (whether it’s rednecks or crazy liberals).

Like, what would happen if I went to a sociology convention and said that I think people who are pro-abortion are anti-feminist? I would probably be crucified. Even if I explained it in sociological terms: that we’ve created a society that punishes women for the natural process of giving birth (eg: both in the work place through terrible maternity and paternity leave policies, and the informal organizational punishing of women who do take maternity leave; through terrible government support of single moms; through demonizing stay-at-home moms, or on the other hand, cult-of-domesticity-izing them; through requiring fathers to take very little responsibility for pregnancy; through creating social pressure on women to abort even if they want to carry, blah blah read this article).

I’d probably still be crucified.

But present a paper on whiteness? Standing ovation.

I’m beginning to think standing ovations mean you’re preaching to the choir.

Preaching only works when your audience agrees with you. Take our political candidates— they’re not out there to change any minds, they’re out there to say something that will “get an amen” (to quote Palin).


Okay, but here’s the kicker. As Scout is packing up to leave, her old Uncle stops her in the driveway. He tells her,

“ You may not know it, but there’s room for you down here.”

“You mean Atticus needs me?”

“Not altogether. I was thinking of Maycomb.”

“That’d be great, with me on one side and everybody else on the other. If life’s an endless flow of the kind of talk I heard this morning, I don’t think I’d exactly fit in.”

“That’s the one thing about here, the South, you’ve missed. You’d be amazed if you knew how many people are on your side, if side’s the right word. You’re no special case. The woods are full of people like you, but we need some more of you. “

She started the car and backed it down the driveway. She said, “What on earth could I do? I can’t fight them. There’s no fight in me any more…”

“I don’t mean by fighting; I mean by going to work every morning, coming home at night, seeing your friends….” [he continues] “I’ll put it in my own words: the time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise. They don’t need you when they’re right—“

“What do you mean?”

“I mean it takes a certain kind of maturity to live in the South these days. You don’t have it yet, but you have a shadow of the beginnings of it. You haven’t the humbleness of mind—“

“I thought the fear of the Lord was the beginning of wisdom.”

“It’s the same thing. Humility.”


So in my mind, this is what happened after the publisher turned down Watchman: Lee took her own advice. She stopped preaching and started living, and wrote a story.

A complicated story with complicated characters, a story so particular to its own context and time it could carry across continents and times, a story from the perspective of a child. A story where the rightness and truth just kind of sneaks up on you. Maybe it’s just a trickier, more cunning way of trying to do the same thing, but I think maybe it’s humbler. It’s less controlling. It’s letting people take what they want to take, rather than bashing them over the head with it.


So maybe this is what we need–more under-cover activists who just get to know their neighbors and instead of running away (or getting bitter and critical), we live with them. And we live with their crazy ideas. And we listen more, and try to understand. And then we find common ground. And then we walk on that common ground together. And maybe you’ll move me an inch, and maybe I’ll move you two inches (come on, guys, I’m still right 🙂), and maybe that’s how we’ll move forward.

Or maybe we’ll just turn to propaganda. Because, gosh darn it, I listened to this story on NPR about it, and it can just because it’s propaganda doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful. (<— this was self-mockery. Kind of.)

Credits: This post was sparked by this AMAZING post on tribalism in America by Scott Alexander. It’s long, but so worth it. He talks about “red tribe” and “the blue tribe” (and actually a “grey tribe”). Turns out people in America feel more strongly prejudiced against people of different tribes than different races. Also, there was that one time I wrote a post about tribalism related to global warming. Also this post I just read on why Donald Trump appeals to the working class that’s amazing. Also my friend Amy wrote this great piece on Watchman that said a lot of the things I did, but much more succinctly. Also, weirdly, Mockingbird is still a contested/banned book in places in America from white and black people. Maybe if Mockingbird came out now, we’d find it just as racist?!

*This is not about whether you vote Democrat or Republican. See this link to a blog post on tribalism in America (same as above).

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