When my class of freshmen students watched the trial scene in the film version of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” where the protagonist Atticus Finch defends black man Tom Robinson in court against a false allegation of raping a white woman, a student asked why so many people attended the hearing. In both the movie and book, local individuals flock to the trial. My freshmen students had never experienced a prominent court case, so they struggled to understand why anyone would want to watch.
I paused the movie. The image of Brett Kavanaugh with his right hand raised had loomed in my subconscious throughout the unit this year, and I finally had a moment to work the parallel into my lesson. A few students knew his name but none knew the details of the public controversy. I had expected it to be so. I summarized the events of the preceding year and continued the movie.
I’m sure that some would label the parallel I drew between Brett Kavanaugh and Tom Robinson problematic. Robinson is a man of color and we, as readers, are certain of his innocence while there remains the possibility that Kavanaugh is culpable.
Yet the facts of the cases show otherwise. In both, political implications extended beyond the courtroom. In both, it was a matter of two conflicting testimonies with little other evidence. In both, one party relied on conflicting accounts to discredit the defendant’s reputation, and the other provided evidence—inconclusive evidence, yes, but more than the accusers could procure.
Atticus would be problematized as well. While always polite and fair, he imposes a blitzkrieg of rhetorical questions upon Mayella Ewell, Robinson’s accuser, none of which she can answer. Instead, she suffers in silence as Atticus exposes her lie to the onlookers. If it took place today, his questioning would be scorned. People would claim he made her relive her traumas and placed her credibility into doubt.
Does the Truth Matter or Not?
I let the movie run to the pronouncement of a guilty verdict. The same student who had asked me about attendance at the trial now asked how they could find him guilty when he wasn’t. It was an injustice, he declared.
Such a declaration is scarce in today’s media in the wake of the Me Too movement. Instead, one feminist author, Emily Linden, tweeted about her lack of concern for falsely accused men, saying, “If some innocent men’s reputations have to take a hit in the process of undoing the patriarchy, that is a price I am absolutely willing to pay.” Even if it were an injustice, it’s negligible, say some.
I want Linden to watch “To Kill a Mockingbird” and stand by her words. When Robinson says through tears “I did not,” after Atticus asks him if he raped Mayella, beat Mayella, or committed any crime, is he not a victim?
False allegations are rare, yes. One study aligns with others in placing the rate somewhere between 2 and 10 percent. However, they happen. Quillette recently ran an article that detailed one of these accusations. A woman accused her ex-boyfriend of rape, placing his career and other personal relationships into jeopardy.
In “To Kill a Mockingbird,” Atticus rightly says Mayella Ewell is to be pitied, but that his “pity does not extend so far as to her putting a man’s life at stake.” Robinson has a wife, children, and daily habits like work and assisting neighbors that give meaning to his life. His tears are valid. We view his condemnation and subsequent extra-judicial execution as a supreme injustice.
Any man sent to jail for a crime he didn’t commit is an injustice. If he’s black or white, any man facing life behind bars while his family must support themselves absent a father is a victim. Those who suffer the atrocity of sexual abuse are victims and they must be protected, but so, too, must the men whose lives are at stake when accused.
Consider the Consequences for Vulnerable People
At the time of the book’s publication, sexual assault was not the prominent societal discussion that it is today. The book instead focused on the issue at the forefront of public consciousness in the 1950s and ’60s: civil rights. Unfortunately, the victims in Lee’s time may be the same as those Me Too creates today.
Long before Michelle Alexander decried the unjust sentencing of black men to life in prison, Harper Lee wrote a bestselling novel to bring awareness to the masses. The story shows how racism can corrupt even ideal institutions like the courts. Contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter are rekindling that question and may soon come into conflict with the Me Too movement.
According to the National Registry of Exonerations, a joint project of University of Michigan School of Law and Michigan State University School of Law, almost half of false criminal accusations fall upon black men, who make up only 14 percent of the American populace. Thus, “To Kill a Mockingbird” reveals an unaddressed potential consequence of the Me Too movement.
As both parties seek to ameliorate former racial injustices perpetrated by unjust courts and the war on drugs, the Me Too movement may create a new target criminal. To be sure, men guilty of rape deserve the harshest of punishments, but to believe all women puts black men at enormous risk for false imprisonment.
Don’t Forget Tom Robinson
Expressed in Linden’s tweet is almost a progressive utilitarianism: the destruction of a few men justifies the liberation of hundreds of women. At face value, it may be hard to argue with, yet in the face of Robinson, the assertion crumbles.
Throughout the novel, Atticus can become a bit of a drag, a verbose moralizer. He stands as the novel’s moral center, though, and is the character from whom we, as readers, draw the final theme. He knows that to place Robinson behind bars not only perpetuates the plight of racism but is itself an instance of grave injustice.
I commend Western society for its push to bring a ubiquitous crime, sexual assault, into the light that it may be struck down, but, as with Atticus’ pity, this commendation ends when it puts an innocent man’s life in jeopardy. That all men must be punished or else the guilty will go free is a false dichotomy and misdirection. We cannot replace one injustice with another.