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Review - To Kill A Mockingbird - Reflections on justice vs the right thing

Updated: Jun 20, 2022

1 June 2022. Gielgud Theatre.

Rating: 🍯🍯🍯🍯🍯

Spoiler warning.

This piece is not so much a review of the production (which is spectacular, by the way), as it is a series of reflections on the story.

Social context can counteract a person's innate desire to do good

The conviction of Tom Robinson serves as an indictment of the legal system. Ultimately, the administration of justice is only as effective as the people in charge of administering it. Does justice even have an independent existence, outside of the people who conceive of it and administer it?

There is something inherently rewarding to human beings about giving and receiving fair treatment, or so suggests the latest psychology research. For example, in one experiment, a subject is offered a sum of money and can choose to share as much of it as she likes with another subject. A homo economicus - the utility-maximising rationally 'selfish' species that makes decisions in much of the problems studied in the economics profession - should choose to not share a cent, because there is everything to be gained from increasing her own wealth and nothing to be gained from increasing the other participant's wealth or happiness. However, the researchers found that their homo sapien subjects more often than not chose to share, even though there was no obligation to do so.

Further, the receiving participant that received around half of the total amount up for grabs (a 'fair' share) reported a higher level of happiness and satisfaction at the end of the experiment than other participants who received the exact same amount of money but a less than fair percentage (less than 50 percent). Put differently, say subject A gets £20 and shares £10 with you. Subject B gets £50 and shares £10 with me. At the end of the day, you and I both go home with £10, so we should both be equally happy. But the experiment finds that I would tend to be less satisfied than you, because I was not treated as 'fairly' as you were.

Therefore, it is fair to say (pun intended) that the human construct of justice has its roots in biology, or at least that is what the latest consensus in psychology research would have us believe (for further reading, see here and here). Witnessing unfairness can make one feel aggrieved and affronted, at least to the extent that the one witnessing it is able to place themselves in the shoes of the victim, or as Atticus Finch would put it, 'get inside their skin and crawl in it'.

But if fairness is so innately rewarding, then how is the jury in To Kill A Mockingbird so easily disposed to send Tom Robinson to his death for a crime he did not commit?

One possibility is that the jury's notion of fairness and justice is different from ours - in their view, Tom Robinson is getting what he deserves, no more and no less. Perhaps he deserves the death sentence for just being black so it would be fair that he gets it. Or maybe the act of feeling sorry for a white girl is a big enough transgression to warrant the death sentence - and what does it matter that the law does not recognise it to be so? After all, in Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, Dmitri accepts his punishment as a form of redemption for all his wrongdoings in his life, even though he did not commit the specific crime for which officially the punishment is being administered. Irrespective of Robinson's culpability in the present trial, before the jury now is another transgression that, if not the original crime, definitely deserved punishment, and this squares full well with their own notions of who deserves what, i.e. their notions of fairness and justice. This just goes to show that justice is very much relative to time and place, and collective notions of justice can vary over time.

Another possibility is that even though individual jury members may have wanted to vote 'not guilty', a desire to conform with what they believed would be the group consensus led them to vote 'guilty' resulting in a collective groupthink. For example, the individual jury members may have been concerned about being ostracised in society after the trial had they voted 'not guilty'. They just voted rationally to protect their own interests.

These considerations go to show that administering fairness and justice can be costly to the one responsible for administering it. Atticus Finch would have done well to recognise that even an inherent goodness in people can be trumped by other considerations. Further, this 'goodness' that he claims exists in every individual can be applied to a situation in multiple ways. For example, consider a well-meaning jury member. If faced with a choice between protecting his own wife, children and grandchildren from a lifetime of societal exclusion and spurn, and sending an innocent but largely inconsequential man to his death, a utilitarian perspective of the matter might suggest that the former option might even be the 'just' thing to do - you protect and enrich more lives than you destroy by choosing this way. It does not matter whether it is really true that you create more value than you destroy, it only matters that you believe that you create more value than you destroy (remember Scout's line towards the end of the play - the right thing to do is to try, to the best of your ability, to do the right thing).

Therefore, as disdainful as it is that an innocent man was sent to his death, it is a rather defeatist attitude to believe that the jury is evil and that racism is too entrenched to ever eradicate.

Eradicating racism needs more than eradicating individual biases

The need of the hour is to alter the social context in which decisions are made. Systemic racism is not hardwired into our biology. The desire for fairness is. Appeal to the innate desire for fair outcomes while simultaneously providing a favourable environment in which choosing that fair outcome is easy - and we may have a sustainable solution to racism.

Naturally, racism stems from individual psychological processes such as stereotype, prejudice and discrimination - which can in turn stem from trust towards 'like' individuals and mistrust towards the 'unlike' and a myriad of other factors - but these implicit biases are not sufficient to keep racism as pervasive as it is in the modern world. Historical, cultural and social context is critical to maintain racist practices (here is a useful summary of roots of racism in psychology research), and therefore modifying the social context in which racial practices prevail can go a long, long way in attenuating the poison of racism in our society.

Had Atticus Finch been aware of this, he may have realised that purging the jury of their individual biases is not enough to get Tom Robinson acquitted. The bee does not believe Atticus Finch was naive to see that there could be an innate goodness in every human being, only that he did not adequately account for the fact that he was operating in a time and place where, even if jury members had an intrinsic desire for fair outcomes, choosing those fair outcomes was costly to the jury members.

Large poster promotion of To Kill A Mockingbird the play at Gielgud Theatre, London
Your bee and a poster for Aaron Sorkin’s To Kill A Mockingbird, Gielgud Theatre

Justice doesn’t always square with what's right

The ethical dilemma at the end of the book is a beautiful example of how doing the 'just' or 'fair' thing is not necessarily the same as doing the 'right' thing. When Atticus considers whether to condone the ludicrous story of Bob Ewell 'falling on his knife', we see he is torn - while letting Bob Ewell walk free does not conform with the law and justice, it certainly feels like the 'right thing to do'.

Tom Robinson was wrongfully convicted for a crime that he did not commit. Here is a chance to convict another otherwise wonderful man, Boo Radley, for a crime that he did commit. Allowing this man to walk free violates notions of procedural justice, but conforms with retributive justice - punishing the real criminal, avenging Robinson, assuaging the indignation and distress of Robinson's family and restoring people's faith in a larger-than-us power that ultimately dictates who gets what in life. Which notion of justice should Atticus then subscribe to - procedural or retributive? Should he uphold his belief in procedural justice - the same procedural justice he talks about with such passion at the start of the play when he convinces Tom Robinson to plead 'not guilty' and put his faith in the unassailable American courtroom where, supposedly, just procedure would be followed to to the letter - or should he abandon procedural justice for retributive justice as the latter is more aligned with love, compassion and kindness for a wonderful man who saved his children's lives? Which type of justice makes for the ‘right’ thing to do? It gets murky.

In Fyodor Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, Raskolnikov tries to convince himself that certain crimes are justifiable if they serve a greater good. He theorises that world loses little from the removal of a nasty old lady, while the money he could get from murdering her would liberate him from his life of penury, freeing him up for great deeds and contributions in the future. The bee thinks that a utilitarian perspective can be used to justify a large number of crimes this way, and is therefore a dangerous one. It is hardly surprising then that it is precisely utilitarianism that is most often invoked to justify a wrongdoing - one just needs to think of a potential benefit of that wrongdoing and find a way to argue that the benefit exceeds the cost, and there you go, you can now believe that you've done the 'right thing'.

It is not immediately obvious to the bee that punishing crime is the same as 'doing the right thing'. Thinking about the foundations of the legal system, crime is punished (mostly) to

1) satisfy the victim (and the public)'s appetite for retribution

2) incapacitate the criminal from committing the crime again

3) create an example that deters others from committing similar crimes

4) eradicate motive for personal revenge by the victim or vigilante justice by mobs

The legal system therefore takes a utilitarian view of punishment - using punishment as an instrument towards social harmony. Social harmony, not social good. One hopes that the two would be synonymous in most situations, but often they are not. In Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice, letting Shylock have a pound of Antony's flesh is the just and fair thing, but it really does not feel like the right thing. To think about the right thing, we need to bring in notions of compassion, mercy, kindness and forgiveness, none of which feature in the law (explicitly at least).

As Atticus begins to uncover the delicate conflict between justice and good, he needs to rethink what he stands for and what example to set for his children. One cannot help but feel sorry for the predicament of a father faced with so delicate a teaching moment, one that is so important to get right, one that will change the character and values of his kids for life.

The events in the novel are a fierce test of Atticus' big, infallible convictions - that the legal system is supreme and can without a doubt be trusted to bring about justice, that justice squares with what's the right or good thing to do, that people have an innate goodness that can be harnessed with empathy (climbing into people's skin and walking around in it), and that treating people with respect is the supreme virtue.

The legal system shows that it is only as good as the people running it, which motivates Atticus to start a movement to bring more diversity into juries - a complete failure in terms of outcomes but a resounding success in terms of teaching his children that fighting for the right thing is the right thing to do. That justice does not square with what's right is a harsh realisation Atticus comes to when he realises he must look the other way with respect to Boo Radley's culpability in Bob Ewell's death. He responds by humbly recognizing that distinction and allowing himself to be taught - a beautiful example to set for his children. That people have an innate goodness in them is a conviction that Atticus maintains until the end, although the bee is unsure the same could not be said of his children, especially Jem. As for always treating people with respect, Calpurnia makes the powerful point that respecting someone often amounts to disrespecting another - treating Bob Ewell with respect may seem disrespectful to Robinson's family and the black community at large and pour salt over festering wounds. Atticus demonstrates a great respectability when he humbly acknowledges this lesson.

In all, To Kill A Mockingbird is a story of the difficulties of subscribing to a particular form of morality, justice and goodness, the complexities therein, and the delicate art of parenting children in a world where these convictions are constantly challenged and shaken. Aaron Sorkin's play does full justice to the novel and goes even beyond, especially with Scout's monologue towards the end. The following line especially stuck with the bee (not a word-for-word reproduction, but it was something to this effect):

Always trying to do the right thing is the right thing to do. Therefore Bob Ewell fell on his knife.

The set of Aaron Sorkin's play at the Gielgud Theatre is beautiful. The lovely porch where Atticus and the children have much of their conversations and play is inviting, and the audience feels like they are sitting right in the frontward looking in on the scene. Gwenyth Keyworth is an extremely endearing Scout that one falls in love with from her very first line on stage. David Moorst is a lovable, charming and outright hilarious Dill that contributed greatly to the bee's emotional connection to the show. The bee has had the fortune to see Rafe Spall and Patrick O'Neal play Atticus Finch on two different occasions. They were different in style and character but both made for excellent Atticus Finches - the loving father, the clever lawyer and the humble learner. What an endearing play, what an endearing story, what a memorable evening. One of the best things the bee has ever done in London.

Five stars.


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