"To save your honour you must sacrifice
All, even conscience" -Jean Racine, Phedre
There are a few works of literature that almost everyone has read, at some point, because they were assigned in High School English or just because reading is something that people do. In the United States, this list will usually include 1984, The Catcher in the Rye and of course, To Kill a Mockingbird. One thing about a book being present in popular culture is that the basic story and ideas become so well "known" that people stop actually reading it. I first learned about "To Kill a Mockingbird" when I was in elementary school, the same age as the protagonists, and my mother read the first few chapters to me. At the time, I only understood about Boo Radley, and I think perhaps my mother stopped reading the book to me because the central story of the book, a story that involves rape and racism, was something I couldn't understand. But every once in a while, a scene in the book that in the past I would have glossed over strikes me as being of importance.
One of the most pivotal scenes in the book is when Atticus Finch questions Mayella Ewell about the injuries she sustained during an attempted rape. Mayella Ewell has accused Thomas Robinson, a black delivery man, of trying to rape her. Atticus Finch argues that she was trying to seduce him, and only when her father, the abusive alcoholic Bob Ewell, appeared, did she accuse him of rape. Mayella Ewell had bruises on the right side of her face, bruises that must have come from a left handed man. Finch dramatically asks Robinson to stand up, showing that his left arm had been mangled in an accident and was useless. Bob Ewell, on the other hand, was left handed. The jury is faced starkly with the fact that the physical evidence points to Robinson assaulting Ewell as impossible. But to acknowledge this physical reality means bringing two unspeakable facts into the open: that Mayella Ewell invited sexual advances from a black man, and that Mayella Ewell may have been sexually abused by her father. Finch pleads with the jury to do their duty, to put facts above social custom. The jury, however, demurs, finding Robinson guilty.
For years if I thought about this scene, I would have thought about it in terms of racism, protecting social structures, and pure hypocrisy. But I had a revelation that "hypocrisy" does not at all describe what went on. Neither was the jury "in denial" about what the facts were. The answer to this riddle must be found on a deeper, ontological level.
My naive reaction was to think of the actual facts being "hidden" beneath the constructed, false series of events. The version of events where the black man is always the aggressor and the white family was blameless was a fictional version of reality. But recently, I came to realize that the world of propriety, of custom and prescribed social roles, was not somehow a "substitute" for the actual world, but was its own level of ontology. The world of Appearance, epitomized by myths of "Southern Womanhood", was for the people of the town, and for the jurors in the courtroom, a world that was not a substitute version of Being, but a world on an equal, or even superior level. The jurors were not stupid, and they knew that in the world of Being, Mayella Ewell had initiated sexual activity, and had been assaulted by her father from sexual possessiveness. But, to them, the world of Being had no import: ontologically, the world of Being existed only to provide building materials for the world of Appearance. What Finch was asking them to do was to reverse their ontology, to put the world of people, feelings, rights, and actuality above a world of roles, manners, customs and "polite fictions".
He was asking the town to break character. And it might have seemed like a ridiculous request. When we go and watch a play, we don't want the actors to stand up and say "Well, man, I really gotta go pee right now!" even if that is what the actor really wants to do. We sometimes agree to set aside our own private feelings and personality to play a role, sometimes in a formal sense (such as in a play) and sometimes in an informal sense (appearing to be a happy houseguest when we would rather be alone). To "keep in character" is sometimes a normal part of society, but it is sometimes stretched to an abnormal extent. Southern society, at the time, was suffocated by its roleplay, by its fictions, to the extent that it had both covered up and created a series of sexual neurosis surrounding sexual purity and the constant assaults on it. These fictions had to be maintained, even if it meant killing an innocent man.
What Atticus Finch was doing in that courtroom was to blatantly point out the inconsistency in a fiction, that everyone already knew was a fiction. It was a rather obnoxious stunt: no different, in the minds of the audience, to standing up in a crowded movie theater and saying "Haha, you can totally tell that is just a guy in a rubber mask!" Of course the audience already knows that it is a man in a rubber mask, with bad CGI, but pointing that out ruins people's immersion.
Since the world of Appearance, in a society that has put the time and effort into creating one, is usually a cyclic system where the parts define each other, there is often no way to fight through it. It is, after all, treated as an a separate ontology, and its rules internal consistency mean that it can not be challenged. Occasionally, however, I see cracks in the facade, impatience or annoyance when I break character, and the silent pleading in the eyes that I "play the game". But, of course, the game's rules only work inside of the game: a consistent ontology is not necessarily one that can compel people outside of it to play along. And so the question comes: no matter how airproof an ontology is made, what happens when other people refuse to play the game?