Books, Journal

Setting a watchman

Disclaimer: This post might not make a lot of sense to most readers. It is mainly written to document some key insights that I want to take away from a book, for self reference in future.

My love for Harper Lee magnified after reading Go Set a Watchman. The book addresses a topic that is extremely relevant to me – how to accept a world that disregards the values that one holds dear. Jean Louise returns to her hometown, Maycomb County, and finds it rotting with racist ideas. Even her father, Atticus – a man who had been her idol since childhood and from whom she has derived all her morals – is a member of a white supremacist organization. The initial shock of the discovery makes her vomit in disgust.

“You sowed the seeds in me, Atticus, and now it’s coming home to you—”

“Are you finished with what you have to say?”

She sneered. “Not half through. I’ll never forgive you for what you did to me. You cheated me, you’ve driven me out of my home and now I’m in a no-man’s-land but good—there’s no place for me any more in Maycomb, and I’ll never be entirely at home anywhere else.”

Several altercations follow. We get to see how different characters justify their stances. They are exactly the kinds of arguments I’m used to when the topic of animal rights comes up. This is proof of the constancy of the human brain – the irresistible urge to justify the status quo through self delusion, no matter how black and white the issue is on moral grounds.

The book doesn’t stop here, but goes on to give some much needed comfort, for what it’s worth (through Uncle Jack, whose role in the novel makes him one of my favorite characters of all time). Uncle Jack asks Jean Louise to look at the other aspects of the world around her, to realize that it is not as doomed as it might seem:

Some men who cheat their wives out of grocery money wouldn’t think of cheating the grocer. Men tend to carry their honesty in pigeonholes, Jean Louise. They can be perfectly honest in some ways and fool themselves in other ways.

It begins with the basic understanding that one moral shortcoming doesn’t make a person bad. This is particularly true when the shortcoming is a general property of the society, as it indicates that the person has adopted the evil instead of initiating it. Thus, a slaughter of a sentient animal for pleasure (taste buds) should not be judged to the full extent of the crime just because it is the societal norm. The same is true for the white supremacists of Maycomb.

Then it moves on to how every one of us develops a personal conscience, and how it sometimes deviates from others’. This leads to falling out with people around us, including those whom we used to admire. But that’s okay, since it protects us from being blind followers and from the backlash that ensues as soon as we challenge society.

Every man’s island, Jean Louise, every man’s watchman, is his conscience. There is no such thing as a collective conscious… now you, Miss, born with your own conscience, somewhere along the line fastened it like a barnacle onto your father’s. As you grew up, when you were grown, totally unknown to yourself, you confused your father with God. You never saw him as a man with a man’s heart, and a man’s failings—I’ll grant you it may have been hard to see, he makes so few mistakes, but he makes ‘em like all of us. You were an emotional cripple, leaning on him, getting the answers from him, assuming that your answers would always be his answers.

And finally, the book shows us how we can co-exist in society despite such significant differences. In fact, it reassures that the conflicts are necessary for the society to make healthy progress over time. It also shows us how we are never truly alone in our convictions – there is always a significant number of people who feel the same, invisible though they may be.

“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.”

… “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.”


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