© Glendon Mellow, The Flying Trilobite

“hey, mr. cunningham”


You never know someone until you step inside their skin and walk around a little. –Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

A few years ago I was teaching a seminar on the use (and misuse) of the arts in the Third Reich when a student asked a great question — one of the best I ever heard as a professor:

“What would you say is the basic difference between ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’?”

What an unusually great question. I stared at the carpet for a week or so as I worked out an answer. Then, amazingly, an answer that I still consider the right one came bubbling to the surface.

I think the central distinction between liberal and conservative is the attitude toward difference. Conservatism embodies our evolved tendency to value what is familiar, shared, and traditional while distrusting the unfamiliar or foreign. Liberalism tends instead to distrust sameness and to see greater value in diversity and change. It seems to (liberal) me that this distinction is at the root of things.

Correct me since I’m wrong.

We watched To Kill a Mockingbird a few days ago. I wasn’t sure if the kids would take to it — B&W, some wooden acting, etc. — but once again they surprised me. As of this morning, Laney and Erin have watched it three times.

I remembered the story as an indictment of racism, but the racial narrative is just one thread in the larger message of the film (and book) — that we fear what is different or unknown, and that that fear drives us to kill mockingbirds (i.e. to hate and harm the innocent).

Tom Robinson is a black man falsely accused of beating and raping a white woman. Mrs. Dubose, the cranky elderly neighbor, is assumed by the children to have a pistol under her shawl. The unseen Boo Radley is assumed to be a homicidal maniac who “eats raw squirrels,” while his father is assumed to be “the meanest man who ever drew breath.” Even a dog walking down the street erratically is assumed rabid and has the Bush Doctrine unleashed on him.

If my definition of the difference between conservatism and liberalism holds water, To Kill a Mockingbird seems to be an extended tribute to the liberal impulse and indictment of the conservative. But again, I’m a damn liberal, so I might very well be engaging in confirmation bias. I’d be interested to see if a conservative sees it differently.

There’s one scene that seemed relevant to the nonreligious — who are, after all, among the hated-different-unfamiliar in our society. A classic lynch mob has gathered at the jail to kill Tom Robinson, only to find his lawyer, Atticus Finch, sitting in the doorway, reading a book.


The mob already has Atticus neatly labeled and dismissed as a “nigger-lover” and a “tricky lawyer” (and now a book reader! Pinko elitist to the core, this one). Having replaced his humanity with a caricature, they will find it a simple matter to do whatever it takes to get past him.

But then Atticus’ children Jem and Scout show up. He orders them to leave. They refuse, and Atticus does not beat them to death (permissive parenting!). Then Scout recognizes a face in the crowd: Mr. Cunningham, a farmer for whom Atticus has done work and whose son Scout knows. “Hey, Mr. Cunningham,” she says:

I said Hey, Mr. Cunningham. Don’t you remember me, Mr. Cunningham? I’m Jean Louise Finch. You brought us some hickory nuts one early morning, remember? We had a talk. I went and got my daddy to come out and thank you. I go to school with your boy. I go to school with Walter. He’s a nice boy. Tell him ‘hey’ for me, won’t you?

She says his name. She says her name. She reminds him of their connection and offers a kind greeting. Cunningham’s body language says it all. He squirms. He looks at the ground. He tries to hide behind the brim of his hat. He can’t keep the caricature from dissolving in the face of Scout’s humanizing connection.

I spend a lot of time telling nonreligious parents that one of the best things we can do for our children is to be out — to have our views known by those around us. It’s far less important to engage and challenge other beliefs than to simply put a known and loved (or hell, even mildly liked) face on the abstract bugaboo of religious doubt.

It works for every kind of reviled “other.” It’s easy to go to war against distant foreigners as long as “they” are “over there,” safely unknown and simplistically drawn. It’s easy to convince yourself that gays are a perverse threat to all that’s holy as long as you don’t know anyone who’s gay. And there’s no difficulty in convincing yourself that atheists are immoral hedonists if you continue to assume that those around you are all believers.

That’s why it’s important for those who differ from the majority — blue people in red states, red people in blue states, gays, atheists, the works — to be out of the closet, to be a smiling, normal, ethical contradiction to all the fearful assumptions. So I try to convince nonreligious folks to seize those “Hey, Mr. Cunningham” moments and put a human face on disbelief. And it’s equally important for us to avoid drawing a caricature of all religious belief — to recognize the normal, sane, ethical believers all around us. That’s the way the caricature crumbles — one person at a time.

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This was written on Thursday, 29. May 2008 at 13:37 and was filed under belief and believers, diversity, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting, reviews, values. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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  1. This is just the best post.
    I was twelve when I saw the movie. My parents hesitated to allow me to see it because it was ‘controversial’.
    I already had a crush on Gregory Peck, and I added Mary Badham (Scout) to my ‘crush’ list.
    I fell in love with the sense of justice this movie established.

    “…be a smiling, normal, ethical contradicition…” is my favorite line in the post, but the book reader pinko elitist reference is a close second…

    Comment: leslie – 29. May 2008 @ 3:36 pm

  2. I’m not sure if your description of conservative and liberal is exactly right. If you are just talking in generalities than I think it is, but when matched up with current political parties I don’t think it applies as much. As a reference I’m right in the middle. My views are very liberal on topics like gay marriage, better education/schooling, the environment, stem cell research and abortion (plus I’m an atheist). On the other hand, I’m very conservative on topics such as gun control, the war on iraq, legalizing drugs, the death sentence, welfare, social security, and government health care.

    Even with my very liberal, and very conservative views on many topics, I don’t see any of those decisions based on embracing or fearing change or difference. I of course could be the major exception to the norm.

    BTW I’m reading your book. I just finished the point/counterpoint on Santa Claus. So far I like it a lot. My daughter, the oldest, will be three in Sept. I still haven’t decided how to handle Santa. I don’t like lying, but I also don’t want to be a scrooge.

    Comment: boonxeven – 29. May 2008 @ 3:49 pm

  3. I’m not sure if your description of conservative and liberal is exactly right. If you are just talking in generalities then I think it is, but when matched up with current political parties I don’t think it applies as much.

    The student asked the question in terms of political philosophy, not parties. You’re right — if it were phrased in terms of Republican and Democrat, it would fall apart on several levels.

    Comment: Dale – 29. May 2008 @ 4:02 pm

  4. Something wonderful clicked in my brain when I read this. Thanks for that! Now I need to go and read it a few more times to make sure I remember it all.

    Comment: Jamie – 29. May 2008 @ 8:06 pm

  5. I loved To Kill A Mockingbird the book especially, but the movie as well. I hadn’t read it or seen the movie until this year.

    The “hey, Mr. Cunnigham” scene is one of the most powerful in the movie, and I think your read on it here is right on.

    Thanks for another great post! 🙂

    Comment: CampQuestAmanda – 29. May 2008 @ 8:54 pm

  6. The student asked the question in terms of political philosophy, not parties. You’re right — if it were phrased in terms of Republican and Democrat, it would fall apart on several levels.

    Well in that case, I completely agree, and I’m not right in the middle, but liberal. You were talking apples and I was talking oranges. 🙂

    On the rest of the post, I really liked it. I’m finally going to put my atheist bumper sticker on my car and be

    out of the closet, to be a smiling, normal, ethical contradiction to all the fearful assumptions.

    Comment: boonxeven – 30. May 2008 @ 9:49 am

  7. UPDATE: Erin (10), watching the movie for the FOURTH (jeez!) time, looked up at me with a self-satisfied look right after the “Hey, Mr. Cunningham” scene and said, “Kindness kills the cat, doesn’t it!”

    It sure does. And a penny saved is worth two in the bush.

    Comment: Dale – 30. May 2008 @ 9:51 am

  8. That’s funny. It makes me think of the bartender in Boondock Saints. If you haven’t seen the movie he is a man that has tourette’s, stutters and mixes up his proverbs. He says a lot, but I like “people in glass houses sink ships”. I’m assuming you’ve seen it because the mixed up proverb you used is one he also uses, but the joke may come from somewhere else.

    Comment: boonxeven – 30. May 2008 @ 10:00 am

  9. Oh, that’s funny. No, I haven’t seen it, nor has Erin.

    Comment: Dale – 30. May 2008 @ 10:30 am

  10. I think it’s rated R for violence and language, so if you are going to watch it you may want to watch it before the kids. It’s a great movie. It’s kind of the opposite of the evil from kindness story about the boy and his frogs and trucks in your book. It’s kind of a good from evil kind of thing I suppose.

    Comment: boonxeven – 30. May 2008 @ 4:27 pm

  11. Great post Dale. I really have to thank you, because between you and Hemant Mehta, I’m closer and closer every day to being more “out”. I’m still a bit wimpy about it. I don’t deny what I am, but I don’t offer it up either. I hang out regularly with a group of Catholic moms from the neighborhood. We cook out together, our kids play together, we babysit for each other, etc. I get regular goofy religious email forwards from them. The closest I’ve come to talking about this is an occasional “I’m not religious, but…”comment. I’m sure if I had a real discussion with them about my beliefs we would still be friends, but it just makes me nervous. It’s taking me a while to build up that courage.

    Comment: matsonwaggs – 31. May 2008 @ 12:20 pm

  12. I have always loved this book and this movie. What a wonderful post! One way I have ‘outed’ myself is by simply listing myself as ‘nonreligious’ on my facebook profile, followed by some wonderful quotes supporting nonreligion from Galileo, Dalai Lama, and Thomas Jefferson that all struck chords with me. I thought it was a good place to voice my views because anyone who has access to my profile already acknowledges me as a ‘friend’ i.e. a ‘good person’ — perhaps giving nonreligion a friendly face in their eyes. I hope so anyway! 🙂

    Comment: SAHMinMN – 03. June 2008 @ 9:06 pm

  13. I know you are laptop free for a few more days, but I thought I would post this now in case you sneak a peak. You inspired me to put some atheist stickers on my car. I tried to pick two that were funny and also illustrated my views. Hopefully the other side will laugh instead of slashing my tires! I don’t think they are offensive, but they may be to someone who can’t laugh at themselves. Here is my post on it.


    Comment: boonxeven – 05. June 2008 @ 10:31 pm

  14. This wonderful post connects in some admittedly “diverse” ways to my unschooled daughter’s meming of life (btw, she’s an atheist planning to minor in religion, now that’s diversity):

    1. The first lesson she read into TKAM the book was the value of education diversity — Scout is scolded at school for learning to read before being taught “properly” with the whole class.

    2. Remember that Gregory Peck starred in another less famous b&w movie about how we (do or don’t) combat religion-based suspicions, which she connected in her own mind to ignorant mob-style attacks on Barack Obama as a Muslim:

    There’s this movie called “Gentleman’s Agreement” from the just-barely-post-WWII-era. Gregory Peck, a maverick reporter, pretends to be Jewish to uncover anti-Semitism.
    . . .“Sure, a man at a dinner table told a story – and the nice people didn’t laugh. They even despised him, sure. But they let it pass.” Dave says.
    “If you don’t stop with that joke, where do you stop?

    Comment: JJ Ross – 14. June 2008 @ 12:11 pm

  15. […] Mr. Cunningham!” a Must-Read at Meming of Life 14 06 2008 This wonderful old-movie post ties to everything we’re learning and discussing here, about how we talk to each other about […]

    Pingback: “Hey Mr. Cunningham!” a Must-Read at Meming of Life « Cocking A Snook! – 14. June 2008 @ 12:44 pm

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