How Aaron Sorkin killed 'Mockingbird'

By Robert Wright, Jan 25 2020

A few months ago I saw the Broadway version of To Kill a Mockingbird, a much-lauded production that, as shaped by playwright Aaron (“The West Wing”) Sorkin, significantly alters the tenor of the 1960 Harper Lee novel. 

There’s a lot about the play I liked. The seemingly weird decision to cast an adult as Scout, the novel’s child narrator, worked spectacularly. But ultimately, I think, Sorkin’s rendering of the story drives home this sad fact: If you want to get much lauded for a Broadway production, the safest route is to affirm the prejudices and moral blind spots of your time rather than challenge them. 

And here’s the irony: If Sorkin had wanted to challenge the prejudices and moral blind spots of our time, all he would have had to do is leave Harper Lee’s version of the story alone. In an important sense, the novel is actually more subversive now than it was in its original milieu. Sorkin, in trying to make the story edgier, has taken the edge off it. In trying to make it politically progressive, he has made it morally regressive. 

To put a finer point on it: Sorkin has written a play for the #Resistance, injecting the story with a subtext about Trumpism and how we should handle it. And that message reflects and reinforces some of the least enlightened and most counterproductive tendencies in the liberal reaction against Trump.   

One of the most famous lines in To Kill a Mockingbird comes during a conversation between Scout and her father, the lawyer Atticus Finch. He says to her: "If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."

In other words, Atticus is a fan of “cognitive empathy”—not necessarily sharing people’s feelings (that’s emotional empathy), but just understanding how they view the world: “perspective taking.” In fact, Atticus is a fan of radical cognitive empathy—trying to understand the perspective of even the characters you find most repugnant, the people whose perspectives you are least naturally inclined to explore. 

He tries to understand what motivates a lynch mob that aims to kill his client, Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape. He tries to see things from the perspective of the man who not only did the false accusing, but threatens to harm Atticus’s family. He wants to understand the jurors who convict Robinson on the basis of dubious evidence. 

I’m with Atticus on this one. It seems to me that if you want to reduce the incidence of objectionable behavior, the first step is to understand how it came to be—what view of the world motivates it, and what circumstances gave rise to that world view. 

Aaron Sorkin, apparently, doesn’t think so. In Harper Lee’s novel, Atticus’s radical cognitive empathy—his effort to understand people whose behavior he deplores—comes off as laudable. But in Sorkin’s play, it doesn’t. Here is an exchange between Atticus and his son Jem that appears in the play but not the novel:  

JEM: You’re trying to excuse those jurors.
ATTICUS: Explain. I’m trying to explain why they—so you can understand—I’m trying—
JEM: They don’t deserve an explanation and I already understand.

Other characters, most powerfully (and most understandably) the Finches’ African-American housekeeper, Calpurnia, also subject Atticus’s cognitive empathy to challenge if not ridicule. And there can be no doubt that they’re speaking for Sorkin. 

Don’t take my word for it. Just listen to what Sorkin himself said before the play opened. 

In a piece designed to pre-empt complaints about his meddling with Mockingbird (which is, after all, a nearly sacred text in America), he explained that he would be turning Atticus, depicted in the book as a paragon of virtue, into a more complex figure. Which, he said, didn’t involve changing Atticus’s character so much as putting it in a new light. “I didn’t have to give Atticus a flaw because, to my mind, he already had one; it’s just that we’d always considered it a virtue. Atticus believes that you can’t really know someone unless you ‘climb into someone’s skin and walk around in it.’ ”

And why does Sorkin think cognitive empathy is a bad thing? Because if you exercise it broadly, pretty soon you’ll be extending it to bigots of the worst kind. Sorkin continued, “He [Atticus] believes that Bob Ewell [Robinson’s accuser] should be understood as a man who lost his job. He believes Mrs. Dubose [a crotchety racist who is mean to Atticus’s kids] should be understood as a woman who recently stopped taking her medication and lives in physical pain. He believes in the fundamental goodness in everyone, even homicidal white supremacists. He believes … that there are fine people on both sides?”

That last line, of course, is an allusion to Trump’s comment on the 2017 white nationalist march in Charlottesville. Apparently Sorkin feels about white nationalists the way Jem felt about the jurors: They don’t deserve an explanation.

Think about the implications of that: When people do very bad things, we shouldn’t try to figure out what made them do what they did. If you imagine us taking Sorkin’s advice every time anyone does something bad, then you’re imagining a future in which humankind makes zero progress in understanding why people do bad things. And the reason for this continued ignorance is that people who do bad things “don’t deserve” an explanation. 

Sorkin’s rejection of radical cognitive empathy isn’t his only morally significant departure from Harper Lee’s version of the story. He makes the story’s antagonists, the father and daughter who falsely accuse Tom Robinson of rape, almost cartoonishly bad. In courtroom rants, both of them express their racism much more overtly and crudely than in the novel—and more crudely than even flat-out racists generally express their racism in public. 

So there is no danger of people in Sorkin’s audience seeing bigotry as a subtle, insidious thing, something people may not admit to themselves—and thus no danger of them asking whether they themselves might sometimes be guilty of it. In Aaron Sorkin’s world, the good guys are always us, and the bad guys are always them.

Sorkin’s embrace of this quasi-Manichaean world view works synergistically with his rejection of radical cognitive empathy. When you consider people purely and unambiguously bad, you’re less likely to try to explore their perspective, and when you don’t explore their perspective, you’re more likely to keep thinking they’re purely and unambiguously bad. 

It would be one thing if the people thus excluded from our understanding were just the worst of the worst—lynch mobs, white nationalists, etc. I’d still be against the exclusion, but at least the damage would be limited. Unfortunately, there’s a tendency in the #Resistance to exclude a much larger group from our understanding—people who voted for Trump. Lots of liberals (though, I like to think, fewer than three years ago) talk about Trump supporters as if they’re all bigots or all idiots or all bigoted idiots.

Among the problems with this attitude: (1) it blinds you to the variety of people who support Trump and the variety of motivations for supporting him (three of my siblings voted for Trump, and their motivations vary); (2) this blindness keeps you from thinking clearly about short-term politics—like what tactics might help a Democrat win the White House; (3) this blindness keeps you from thinking clearly about long-term policy—like what policies might reduce support for Trumpism over time. 

In Sorkin’s defense, his concern about doing people a favor by understanding the roots of their misdeeds isn’t crazy. Understanding, say, the impoverished upbringing and unwholesome peer group that helped turn someone into a criminal can indeed make us more sympathetic toward them, even more forgiving of them. The French aphorism tout comprendre, c'est tout pardonner—to know all is to forgive all—captures a deeply engrained human moral intuition. 

And of course, forgiving all has its perils. A world in which you don’t put criminals in jail, or don’t subject bigots to moral sanction, is a dangerous place. So if we’re going to try to understand why people do bad things, we need to be wary of the natural conflation of explanation and exoneration, the intuition that to understand is to forgive. We need to be able to explore why people do bad things without concluding that they’re “fine people.” 

Or, alternatively, we can try to hang on to the idea that they are in a sense fine people; we can try to “love the sinner, hate the sin,” mindful that if any of us had been born in their exact circumstances—with their genes, in their environment—we presumably would have turned out as they did. If we take that path, we need to learn to see punishment as a regrettable necessity, something that miscreants may in some sense not deserve, but something we have to administer for the greater good. 

But I digress. How best to disentangle explanation from exoneration, so that we can hold people accountable for bad behavior even as we come to understand its roots, is a big and subtle challenge—a subject for another day. 

Meanwhile, I’ll say one more thing in Sorkin’s defense: the Harper Lee version of Mockingbird does in some ways feed fears that understanding the roots of bad behavior could be a slippery slope toward excusing it. There are places where Atticus seems to suggest as much. “She’s old and ill,” he says of Mrs. Dubose. “You can’t hold her responsible for what she says and does.”

By my lights, this is a sign that Atticus hasn’t fully thought through the implications of his radical cognitive empathy—hasn’t wholly reckoned with the practical need to hold people accountable for wrongdoing even when we understand why they did wrong. But that’s the way moral progress works—one step at a time. Atticus has at least taken the first step. I don’t think we should follow Sorkin’s guidance and take a step backward, even though we’re living in a political age when doing that is a good way to win applause.

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