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Why Harper Lee’s message of tolerance remains relevant today

Sanjana Ray
28th Apr 2017
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It’s been 57 years since Harper Lee gave the world the philosophy of Atticus Finch, which we realised through his two children, Scout and Jem. Set in the dusky town of Maycomb, Alabama, Lee’s classic coming-of-age novel still finds itself in academic courses today, and is based loosely on the author’s own life.

Image credit: Creative Commons

Considering the rise of racial intolerance and an alarming level of hate-crimes against minority or subjugated races today, Lee’s book on a man wrongly convicted and persecuted for a crime on the basis of his skin colour remains as relevant as ever. Keeping in mind that the book was published at a time when racial segregation was rampant and very much legal, it was commendable on Lee’s part to challenge the stereotypes and have her book win favour amidst the same group set on enforcing this medieval practice.

As the novel’s hero, Atticus Finch puts it, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view... Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.” And that is exactly what Lee attempted to do with her novel – to make her readers break through each layer of the enforced racial segregation by putting them in the shoes of the oppressed.

Although Lee won the acclaimed Pulitzer award for the novel back in 1961, she didn’t publish another book until 2015, when she released Go Set a Watchman. First written in 1957, it was the earliest draft of what eventually became To Kill a Mockingbird.

In a novel filled with warmth, humour, and familiarity, the twin principles of racial injustice and destruction of innocence are brilliantly portrayed through its pages. Lee examines the social problems of class, colour, gender, and other varying social taboos in her bestselling work based on what she had experienced herself as an impressionable 10-year-old in her hometown of Monroeville, Alabama in 1936.

Today, on what would have been her 91st birthday, we reflect on the countless life lessons that we took away from Lee’s classic novel, which will continue to be relevant in society for the many decades to come.

On courage

“Real courage is when you know you're licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”

Tom Robinson, a black man wrongly convicted of the rape of a white woman, is the representation of the gross injustice carried out through racial segregation. Atticus, who took up Robinson’s case despite facing outrage from friends and neighbours alike, knew from the very beginning that he was going to lose the case. Despite this, he refused to throw the man to the wolves and stood by him till the very end, even though he knew that by doing so, he along with his family would be ostracised from polite society.

Too often in life, we don’t stand up for things we secretly believe in, because we convince ourselves from the very beginning that there’s no victory to be found in doing so. But that’s where we’re wrong. True courage comes in challenging the insurmountable and standing ground till the very end, no matter the consequences.

On handling provocation

“You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don't you let ‘em get your goat. Try fightin' with your head for a change.”

It’s so easy to get provoked. The human ego can be volatile; the minute our feathers are ruffled, we gear up for the big fight. Scout, the protagonist of the novel, was by nature more hot-headed and prone to violence than her older brother, Jem. When her father took up Tom Robinson’s case, the children began to get ostracised in school, with their classmates calling Atticus vile names like ‘nigger lover’. This set Scout’s temper ablaze and she beat her fellow male classmate into a pulp. Later however, she received an earful from Atticus for falling to the same shallow levels as the boy who had insulted them in the first place. To him, the minute you let someone get the better of you, you’ve lost the battle already. Instead, you should practice to keep your head above the hot waters and use your head instead of your fists to give it back to them, twice over.

On integrity

“Before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

Scout had wondered about why her father was choosing to be condemned by society for the sake of another – especially when the outcome looked as bleak as it did. His well-wishers, even his own sister, asked him to reconsider this pledge, considering that he had a high reputation to maintain. However, Atticus’ philosophy, which he directed at both Scout and Jem, lay in the fact that if he didn’t take up Robinson’s case and left him to rot in the cells for a crime he didn’t commit, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself, let alone live around others who didn’t understand.

As humans living in polite society, we are wired by the same to appease those living and judging around us. But true peace comes with being content with yourself and your actions before seeking validation from the people around you.

On kindness

“Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

This historic dialogue reflects Atticus’ request to his children to never shoot at a mockingbird. Through the course of the novel, mockingbirds become the symbolic representations of innocents like Tom Robinson and the reclusive Boo Radley, who have been wrongly condemned and persecuted despite causing no harm to another. Mockingbirds do nothing but add peace and happiness to our lives. However, on account of this, they often become easy scapegoats to our aggression and frustrations and become victims of a societal need to lash out.

We should never take out our ire on another in account of their kindness and availability – a crime we are all guilty of at some point in our lives.

Always remember, it is terrible sin to kill a mockingbird.

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