You can kill a mad dog, but you shouldn’t kill an innocent songbird. Morality isn’t a set of absolute do’s and don’ts. Genuine morality is the goodness of your heart. That goodness is more often than not a product of right upbringing. Atticus Finch of Harper Lee’s celebrated novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, is an ideal father who brings up his two children teaching them the most essential lessons of human life.
Scout and Jem are innocent at the beginning of the story. They will, and have to, lose their innocence as the plot develops. Yet they will retain their human goodness because their father has given them the right education.
Most human beings carry in their hearts a lot of prejudice and ignorance, hate and hypocrisy. That’s why the world is such a foul place where innocent songbirds get killed for no reason and mad dogs rule the roost. You can and should keep your conscience clean if you want to add to the little goodness that remains in humankind. “The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience,” says Atticus.
We are told again and again, until our ears are deafened by the sheer vulgarity of it, that the majority decide the shape of the nation. Who are the majority, however? A Himalayan mass of ignorance and hypocrisy, prejudice and hate. Tom Robinson is accused of raping a white woman merely because he is black and the majority are white. His innocence is more than obvious and yet he is convicted. We may be reminded of a Pehlu Khan or a Mohammed Akhlaq. The morality of the majority is not quite right very often.
Atticus teaches his children the great human values of courage and kindness, tolerance and cool reason. Scout and Jem will grow up into wisdom by undergoing the painful but inevitable experience of losing their innocence. Tom the Negro is destroyed despite his innocence raising a serious question about the validity of the majoritarian morality. Boo Radley is a white man who is innocent and so doesn’t know how to get on in the world. Boo hides himself from the world. When he does come out of the hiding, it is to save the innocent children. He commits a crime for the sake of saving innocence. He kills a man. But the evidence is manipulated in order to save Boo. “Well, [telling the truth would] be sort of like shootin’ a mockingbird, wouldn’t it?” Atticus asks.
Tom was a mockingbird, innocent. He was killed. He shouldn’t have been. But the majority’s morality is quite different, we know. Atticus accepts the manipulation of the evidence for the sake of saving Boo. The person whom he killed was as good as a mad dog. In the beginning of the novel, Atticus does kill a mad dog. Sometimes violence is inevitable, especially when you’re dealing with trash.
“As you grow older,” Atticus teaches his little children, “you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it… Whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.” Let your conscience decide how to deal with trash, not your religion, not the majority, not marketplace platitudes.
Shaping the right conscience is the duty of every good human being. Your conscience should be clear. Only then can you teach your children to keep their consciences clear too. There can never be a good society without such clear consciences. Bombastic rhetoric spoken with histrionics may move nationalist spirits but won’t create an iota of goodness in hearts. Goodness doesn’t need much decibel; it needs a soft breeze that touches hearts.
PS. Written for Indispire Edition 350: You are asked to suggest a book that everyone must read. Which book would you suggest? Why? #MustReadBook