To Still a Talking Turd? (maybe not); Peel School District and Harper Lee

I  was recently placed in the unenviable position of agreeing with an interpretation that was subsequently enforced by Draconian and anti-democratic measures. When Peel School District in greater Toronto announced that from here on in, the official manner of teaching Lee’s famous novel To Kill a Mocking Bird would be lensed through an ‘anti-oppression’ rubric, I was both disconcerted and delighted. That the text appears to be some kind of ‘white man’s burden’ propaganda, dear to all liberal hearts who imagine that heroism comes from taking up a cause due to irrevocable deficits on the part of those so benighted  – from the cognitively disabled black defendant to the obsequiously slatternly and slavish servant; are these characters not metaphors for how white persons imagined blacks at the time and beyond? – that they require their very oppressor to free them from their bondage, and on his terms, presents a problem. The bravado masculinity of the lawyer and the cliché naivety of his daughter round out most of the narrative stage. In a word, the book stinks. And yet it still speaks to us. It is, if you will, a ‘talking turd’.

But to still its voices, to narrow the interpretive lens to such a degree that other things that just might be in this book somewhere, or any book, is to step uncomfortably close to the very social frameworks that are sourced in the attitudes the book seems to represent. One correct way, one lens. Beyond this, to attempt to enforce this through official suasion within a set of institutions dedicated to learning, consciousness, knowledge, and ultimately, human freedom, is ironic at best. Teachers who were interviewed fear that this is but the opening salvo in a war against the written word, cannons versus canons. I think this at least is premature. There is no evidence Peel SD is out for the lifeblood of the Western literary world. But their actions still presented a puzzle. Why not simply issue a statement regarding the text itself? It could contain what I think is a strong argument that the book is a piece of internecine colonialism and a decoy against structural change. That it was recently voted as the best American novel of all time is not, as one journalist had it, an indirect indictment against Peel SD, but rather is suggestive of the plausibility that racism in the USA has not altered much since c. 1960 as well as of a general illiteracy throughout the American public.

It is the scandal of art that evidences its relevance and its radicality. But popular art can play at scandal while in fact defending social institutions as they currently are. Much popular music charts this duplicitous course, its apparent critiques commoditized and glamorized in a way that serious art eschews. Not that we do not try to assuage the world in the face of thought and art. The art market, especially for paintings, has never been more lucrative. Even so, the effect of art, the aesthetic object, is to provide a consistent and even constant objection to the way things are. In short, it is its own lens. Very often, the content of such lenses are in themselves vulgar – Lolita comes immediately to mind – or they are sentimental – Romeo and Juliet – or are yet updates on ancient parables – East of Eden. Lee’s content is secondary to its quality as a cultural artifact, like these other works. But just here, we have to confront the bad conscience that the book avoids so scrupulously, just as Lolita, for instance, avoids the wider issue of age-related lust simply by having the protagonist, if he can be labelled such, a criminal.

The thoughtful response to any sign of the halting process of species maturity is to open these questions up as radically as possible. Works of would-be art that provide rationalizations for wider iniquities and disquiet can serve such a purpose, perhaps at most. Nevertheless, it is a noble purpose. This or that work can always be reduced to a precise if narrow editorial, popular or serious. Harry Potter? Arthurian romance meets the tuck shop. CS Lewis? Not-so-cunning soteriological sop. Or yet my own Kristen-Seraphim; X-Rated Enid Blyton. Surely there is more to it, and it is up to educators to discover that more, just as we charge our scientists to discover more of that cosmic truth in which all of us remain enveloped. So as with other discourses, the duty of educational administrators is to radically encourage their pedagogic colleagues to open up the texts at hand and to never shy away from scandal, even evil, for within the realm of the arts, both of these effects are salutary to an enduring human freedom.

G.V. Loewen is the author of over thirty books and is one of Canada’s leading contemporary thinkers.