The importance of being our own moral barometer

I sat there listening to her, my mentor and the person who is responsible for where I am today in my career, talk about her prejudices. We had both ordered lunch at a cafe. We were both talking about the refugee crises and to which both of us felt great shame at our country. Being someone with authoritative knowledge on asylum seekers, my maths teacher from high school, was regaling me about her experiences working with asylum seekers in New Zealand.

She was telling me about a particular encounter she had with an asylum seeker of John Coffey like physique. She was telling me, how initially, she was afraid of being trapped in the confinement of his prison cell, and how afterwards she was bemused at his gentility. She was brought down from the ivory tower of her righteousness to the realization that she still had prejudices. Her own moral barometer helped her to pick up these changes and realize her fallacy.

Hearing about her experience, I realized, how it is fundamentally important for us to have a moral barometer. A psychological measuring device that tells us the subtle changes in our morals as we walk along the sandy line of right and wrong like a village drunk. Hearing my mentor, with her endearing words, openly talk about her prejudice made me think about Atticus Finch.

I had recently finished Harper Lee’s new book Go set a watchman, the sequel the How to kill a mockingbird. The book made me angry at Atticus. Like Scout, the backbone of my values came down, and I felt paralyzed. I worshiped Atticus. From the moment in my childhood when I was introduced to Atticus Finch, the man became the litmus test for what is right and for what is wrong. Whenever I was at a crossroad of morality, I would always use Atticus as the example. His character guided me to an answer, but through this process, I made him omnipotent, and my high school teacher his personification. Much like Jean Louise, I did not have my moral barometer. My high school teacher gave me that tool. Although my barometer, being neither very accurate nor very sensitive, has given me, or at least removed my dependence on other protagonists, to navigate the crossroads by myself.

I realised the importance of this tool was not to imbue us to re-orient our behaviour. Indeed, we may rationalise our prejudices and as a result, come to accept, and with some misguided notion come to advocate for them, such as Atticus. But the true purpose of a moral barometer is to ignite the ageless question of who we are. It is there to keep us honest. It is there to keep us humble. It is there to treat the definition of ourselves like clay, one that we can continuously shape. This was the lesson that I learnt from Mrs McHardy in the cafe. She was able to see her prejudice, but she didn’t rationalize them. She accepted they were wrong, and she got stuck in moulding her clay. As a result, and over time, her perception changed along with her prejudice. And like Atticus, she too became a human to me.

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