I recently called up a few of the most professional lawyers I know and asked them how they’d suggest dealing with the churls that we all run into from time to time. The result was a fun and, I think, useful article, “Uncivil Action,” the cover story in this month’s issue of the Illinois Bar Journal. Though directed to the litigation context, my sources’ advice is good for any area of life where churls may appear.
One of the lawyers I interviewed recommended reading “The No Asshole Rule,” by Robert I. Sutton. I did so, and could see why she recommended it.
Sutton, a management consultant, writes about the harm churls do in the workplace and beyond, illustrating his thesis with vivid examples and providing practical coping recommendations. He advises against going to work for a company populated with churls, for example, because of the heightened risk of becoming a churl oneself. There’s a good reason we’re known by the company we keep.
What I found particularly memorable about Sutton’s book was his use of multiple examples of his own behavior to make the point that we all have the capacity to behave badly, even churlishly, at times. It speaks well of him or anyone else, in my opinion, to have examined his own behavior, reflect upon it, and publicly acknowledge that it was wrong. Sutton’s point should also remind us that most of the churls we encounter in our lives are not completely evil monsters, but, rather, imperfect people who may not be so different from ourselves.
The British Victorians were really good at depicting extreme versions of churls: easy-to-hate bullies with no redeeming qualities. Even the names that Charles Dickens gave to his churls tell us right away what sort of people they are: Wackford Squeers in “Nicholas Nickleby,” Mr. Bumble in “Oliver Twist,” and Mr. Murdstone in “David Copperfield.” In “Jane Eyre,” Charlotte Bronte also depicted some memorable churls, the Reed family and Mr. Brocklehurst. Hardly less disagreeable are Anthony Trollope’s Mrs. Proudie and Obadiah Slope in “Barchester Towers.”
More recently, Khaled Hosseini created such a churl, Assef, in “The Kite Runner.” Far more interesting a character in Hosseini’s wonderful novel, though, is his chief protagonist, Amir, who behaves very dishonorably—churlishly—for the first part of the novel and spends the rest reflecting on and atoning for his actions. I can imagine that Amir’s character was more difficult to write than Assef’s, but Amir, a complex and well-rounded character, is much closer to most of us than the sociopathic Assef.
What fictional churls have you found interesting and memorable?