Does Identity Determine Truth?

The truth doesn’t have a side.

That thought came to me while re-watching To Kill a Mockingbird. To view this 1962 movie is to be taken back to a time and place that was black and white in many senses of that term. The story takes place in the South in the mid-1930s, when movies were black and white. It is a time in which the black and white races were not merely segregated, but also highly restricted in what was considered allowable interaction. And the main characters of the story are broadly drawn according to good and evil so much that they might as well be wearing black and white hats.

So much is gray now; so much is disputable now; so much is relative now. If that time was horrible for many—perhaps most—it at least brought moral clarity to some issues of the day.

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But one way in which that time and ours are the same is the sense of belonging to a group, and seeing the world through the prism of group membership. In that sense, intersectionality and identity politics are not such modern ideas.

The central issue in the movie is that a poor white woman, Mayella Ewell, has accused a black man, Tom Robinson, of rape. Atticus Finch, the father of the narrator of the story, is the accused’s attorney, and he mounts a spirited defense, at much peril to himself and his family. Now, this trial can be viewed in many ways, but in our times of identity politics, it is perhaps inevitably seen as a clash of group identities: a racial minority versus women. If Tom Robinson is let off, then the racial minority wins and women lose; but if Tom Robinson is convicted then women win and the racial minority loses. It’s a zero sum game, and all that’s left is to choose a side. It’s Team BlackLivesMatter against Team MeToo.

Best-selling author, Malcolm Gladwell, recently said about the conflict: “Finch is offering his fellow White men on the jury a choice. He says, ‘Look, you can act as White people and enforce your power against Black people or you can act as men and enforce the power of your gender against women.’ Atticus Finch gets an awful lot of love, but when I read that book, all I could think was he’s just telling them, ‘Don’t be racist, be sexist.’ That might be a good argument in the moment, but it’s not especially noble.”

And yet, there is another way the trial could be looked at.

During the trial, several points are brought out indicating that Tom did not rape Mayella. Tom was injured as a young boy and lost the use of his left arm, which means he likely could not have made the strangle marks around Mayella’s neck. Mayella’s testimony is self-contradictory, and also contradicts testimony given by her father. No medical examination was conducted, so there is no evidence that a rape even occurred.

By no stretch of the imagination does the state prove that Tom Robinson is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. However, the men of the jury convict him anyway. According to Gladwell’s construction, they choose race over gender.

But suppose they had looked at the trial not as a clash of group identities, but merely as a straightforward search for truth. Suppose they had weighed the evidence and concluded dispassionately that the evidence did not support a guilty verdict. Would that really have been a defeat for women? Or would it have been a victory for truth? Is truth really zero sum, or is it better for everyone in the end?

Today in our country, group membership often is what counts for or against you, not whether you’ve actually done anything good or bad. We are seeing this now with accusations of inappropriate sexual conduct leveled against many people. A list of anonymously accused men in media is currently floating around the internet. The accused have no ability to answer the accusations, as they have no idea who is making the accusations or even necessarily what the accusations are. In a twitter post forthrightly extolling the new mindset, Emily Lindin, a Teen Vogue columnist, recently wrote, “Sorry. 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.” Of course she’s willing to pay that price. Just like the white men of the jury were willing to pay the price of Tom Robinson’s life in order to keep intact a social system that they preferred. No price is too high when someone else is paying it.

It’s so easy to be caught up in sides, to pick a team and to stick with that team and defend that team no matter what.

In the Presidential election, we saw the team mentality everywhere. Those on Team Trump often stated not merely that he was better than the alternative, but positively extolled his virtues, even when those virtues seemed rather thin. Those on Team Clinton overlooked and excused actions that they would have denounced if someone other than she had done them.

Her election loss freed some on Team Clinton to see things differently. This past November, Clinton supporter Michelle Goldberg wrote in the New York Times that, upon reflection, she now believes a rape charge made against Bill Clinton by Juanita Broaddrick. Caitlin Flanagan, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, in an NPR interview said about backing Bill Clinton over his accusers, “We made a profound error. We apologize to these women for what was done to them by our own side. And therefore, with a clean conscience, we can go forward and say, once again, we have a sexual abuser in the White House. And that is something that is profoundly wrong and should be on everyone’s mind for 2020.”

It seems a little late, though, claiming to see the truth only when it’s to your team’s benefit.

Still, what’s true is true. The truth doesn’t have a side. A true thing is true even if a devil says it, and a lie is a lie even if uttered by a saint. Standing on the side of the truth means we don’t have to pick for or against a racial minority or for or against a gender, the poor or the rich, immigrants versus native born, or any other group.

Donald Trump has been accused of misconduct by a large number of women, and by his own recorded words. Roy Moore, who apparently will never concede the Alabama senate election, was similarly credibly accused of a number of misdeeds.

Voting for either Trump or Moore is perfectly defensible on the basis that an election is usually a binary choice, and binary choices don’t allow for ambiguities and caveats. But you can support a politician without defending all of his actions. Defending the indefensible doesn’t make it less indefensible. It just marks the defender as having very elastic principles.

So, by all means let us work for the common good as best we can, even when that means voting for a politician who is not someone of great personal integrity. But as we make a pro-life or pro-family argument, it won’t help us if we are seen as just being part of a Team that we defend no matter what.


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