What is the irony of Miss Gates' lecture on democracy when compared to her comments at the trial in Chapter 26 of To Kill a Mockingbird?

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bullgatortail | High School Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Miss Gates, Scout's second grade teacher, preaches about the bad treatment that the Jews receive at the hands of Adolf Hitler in Chapter 26 of To Kill a Mockingbird. She sympathizes with the Jews, saying

"They contribute to every society they live in and... are a deeply religious people."

She stresses the importance of democracy--"with equal rights for all"--over a dictatorship, reminding the children that the Jews "have been persecuted since the beginning of history." But Scout remembers a conversation she had overheard between Miss Gates and Miss Stephanie following the trial of Tom Robinson, and the hypocrisy of her teacher's words confused her. Referring to Maycomb's Negro population, Miss Gates had said that

"... it's time somebody taught 'em a lesson, they were gettin' way above themselves, an' the next thing they think they can marry us."

Though Scout was not yet eight years old, she understood the irony and hypocrisy of her teacher's two views: that it was not acceptable for the Jews--white people--to be discriminated against, but that it was okay for the white people of Maycomb to persecute black people in the same manner in which Hitler treated the Jews.

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readerofbooks | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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This is a good question and there are two main ironies. First, she is blind. She thinks that she understands democracy, but she does not. More to the point, even a young girl recognizes her inconsistency. For example, in her sanctimonious lesson on the greatness of American democracy, she fails to realize that she and her town are filled with racism and that shortly before they condemned an innocent black man. From this perspective, Maycomb and Nazi Germany are only different by a few degrees. 

Then Miss Gates said, “That’s the difference between America and Germany. We are a democracy and Germany is a dictatorship. Dictator-ship,” she said. “Over here we don’t believe in persecuting anybody. Persecution comes from people who are prejudiced. Prejudice,” she enunciated carefully. “There are no better people in the world than the Jews, and why Hitler doesn’t think so is a mystery to me.” 

Second and perhaps more seriously Miss Gates is racist. She does not believe that all people are equal. She is incredibly prejudiced and she does not even know it. Scout says to Jem that she overheard Miss Gates talking and what came out was hatred, the ugliest bias, and blind racism. 

“Well, coming out of the courthouse that night Miss Gates was—she was goin‘ down the steps in front of us, you musta not seen her—she was talking with Miss Stephanie Crawford. I heard her say it’s time somebody taught ’em a lesson, they were gettin‘ way above themselves, an’ the next thing they think they can do is marry us. Jem, how can you hate Hitler so bad an‘ then turn around and be ugly about folks right at home—”


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