If you look at the public debates over the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, one thing leaps out, something that is more broadly relevant, something that distinguishes the mental modality of the right from the left in one very precise way. This is an issue of cognitive framing, with the narrower frame permitting a conclusion of justifiable self-defense (assuming the facts most favorable to the defense), and the broader frame precluding it.
For instance, if you ask, “does one have the right to defend himself, with a firearm, against someone about to clobber him over the head with a heavy object,” most people would answer, “of course.” But what if the “defender” were a mugger who had attacked the guy with the heavy object, the heavy object were his cane that he needed due to an infirmity, and the moment being referred to were the mugging victim’s response to being mugged by an armed assailant? Does the mugger then have the right to claim self-defense, for shooting his victim as his victim tried to defend himself? Of course not.
Let’s come up with an analogy that more closely parallels the Zimmerman case, emphasizing and playing on the stereotypes involved (and other stereotypes as well). Consider this scenario: A young, white middle class woman is walking through a residential neighborhood at night to return home from the nearby convenience store. She notices a big, black guy following her. She continues to walk, and confirms that he is definitely following her. Terrified, she slips off the path and finds an object to arm herself with, a plywood board. As her stalker approaches, she comes out behind him, swings the board, screaming. Her stalker, who, as it turns out, was an armed stalker, pulls out his gun and shoots her to death. (I am using the word “stalker” to refer to any stranger following around another person with some kind of unfriendly intent, including thinking that the other person is a “punk” who you don’t want to let “get away with” some imaginary infraction that their race induced you to believe they must be committing.)
Tell me, right-wing apologists, is your big black stalker innocent, because he was just defending himself? Are you as indifferent to this innocent white woman’s violent death at the hands of an armed stalker as you are of an unarmed black teen’s violent death at the hands of an armed stalker?
Here is the complete list of differences between this scenario and the Zimmerman-Martin scenario: 1) the races of the stalker and the person stalked; 2) the gender of the person stalked; 3) right-wing ASSUMPTION of the intentions of the stalker in each scenario and the different degrees to which they (right-wingers) identify with the stalker and the person stalked in each scenario; 4) the woman having armed herself (to make her at least as threatening as unarmed Martin was); and 4) the generous assumption for my alternative scenario that all of the facts best favoring the Zimmerman defense are true.
So, why, exactly, is that white-woman-stalking-victim an innocent victim of the criminal-black-stalker, while the unarmed black victim of our real stalker (Hispanic, white, I don’t care) is just the unlucky person who was killed by an innocent person’s discharged bullet? The answer is very simple: The combination of the right-wing need to defend the absurd belief that we are a safer society if people go out with guns looking for trouble and their (right-wingers’) racism. a combination that is as horrifying and offensive to rational and humane people today as all similar past chapters of our national history have been.
Right-wing arguments (and particularly gun culture arguments) frequently rely on this narrowing of the frame, filtering out the contextual information which completely changes the analysis. Those who see in this case no guilt on Zimmerman’s part have chosen a very narrow frame, which excludes much relevant information; those who see guilt on Zimmerman’s part choose a broader and more inclusive one.
There are many other issues in which this difference in framing is central to the ideological differences found in regard to them. The right relies on a reduced frame, hyper-individualistic rather than social systemic, static and instantaneous rather than dynamical and over time. And that is not just a difference in personal taste, but a reduction in cogency.
The Zimmerman trial is over, the verdict is in, but the public issue over what kind of a people we want to choose to be continues. The right insists that it is good for society for people to have the right to arm themselves and stalk people they are suspicious of, for whatever reason they are suspicious of them, incite a violent encounter by doing so, and shoot to death the person they chose to stalk in the process of that violent encounter. I want to believe that the overwhelming majority of Americans don’t agree.
We’ve had Columbine. We’ve had Virginia Tech. We’ve had the Gabby Giffords shooting. We’ve had the Aurora Theater shooting. We’ve had Sandy Hook Elementary School. We have, on average, ten times the homicide rate of any other developed nation on Earth. We have half the privately owned firearms on Earth. And we have people who are so blithely indifferent to the death and suffering that their idolatry of instruments of deadly violence cause that they won’t let us, as a people, even implement universal background checks or limit the magazine capacity of their military grade weapons. The degree of insanity –vicious, destructive insanity– involved in this right-wing ideology is simply mindboggling.
At the same time, they want voter suppression laws (and have been assisted in being able to pass and implement them in a recent Court decision that disabled the Voting Rights Act), they want to dismantle Affirmative Action, they want to disregard the injustices and inequities of our society, they want to blame the poor for being poor, they want to disregard our responsibilities to one another as members of a society, they want to erase our humanity and promote only selfish disregard for the rights and welfare of anyone who doesn’t look just like them. And they are uncompromising in their commitment to these “ideals.”
(The examples mentioned here, of course, only scratch the surface. See Why The Far-Right Is On The Wrong Side Of Reason, Morality, Humanity and History for a more in-depth treatment.)
This is not a country divided by two opposing reasonable views, that we need to find some reasonable ground between. This is a country divided by, on the one hand, reason in service to humanity and, on the other, irrationality in service to inhumanity. It is time, America, to reduce the latter to a sad footnote of our history, and promote the former to the status of the shared foundation on which we all build. It’s time to allow our disagreements to be defined by the limits of our wisdom and decency rather than by the extent of our bigotries.
(See also Debunking The Arguments of the American Gun Culture for a cogent discussion of the competing narratives informing the right and the left, and how they fit into this struggle between reason in service to humanity and irrationality in service to inhumanity, a perennial struggle of human history, and one from which we are not, as it turns out, at all exempt.)
What follows is an exchange on Facebook regarding George Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence in the Trayvon Martin shooting. It is a perfect illustration of one dimension of the two competing visions for America.
SH: I worry about the popular focus on the details of the Zimmerman case, because it plays into a right-wing narrative: That the facts not in dispute aren’t already dispositive for public policy purposes. (Disclaimer: the details are important for the trial and the jury, but what the public needs to get out of this is that we have created a context that increases rather than decreases violence, does so in ways which implicate racial prejudices and stereotypes, and that we need to pull back from that approach). Zimmerman set out with a gun looking for “bad guys” to defend himself against, identified an unarmed black teen in a hoodie walking home from the store as just such a “bad guy,” pursued the teen despite being told by the police dispatcher not to, and ended up shooting that teen to death. Nothing else really matters in terms of what this incident tells us about our continuing moral failure as a society in regards to both violence and race, and we shouldn’t let anyone sell the false narrative that it does.
MS: The main factor that needs to be decided is if Zimmerman really defended himself or got too heated. This case was screwed from the beginning based on the race issue being presented.
SH: M, I disagree, on both counts. If our laws currently sanction someone going out with a gun looking for people to defend himself against, identifying one such on the basis of his own perceptions (which certainly do seem have been influenced by race in this case, because there’s absolutely no evidence or even suggestion that Martin was doing anything other than “being black” to arouse Zimmerman’s suspicions), pursuing that innocent person, and as a result ending up shooting that person to death, then our laws are in error.
CL: I mean, seriously, what am I missing? Why was this case brought in the first place? Zimmerman is a creepy-ass cracker, but there isn’t enough evidence for a murder rap. I might not be some fancy, big city attorney, but it seems like the local prosecutors had a good reason for not pressing charges.
SH: What you’re missing is that when an armed assailant pursues an innocent individual walking home from the store and shoots him to death, that is certainly prima facie evidence of a crime.
CL: That’s really dumb. It’s conceded that Zimmerman was following Martin around for no good reason. But just because someone is following you around for no good reason doesn’t give you the right to attack him. If we don’t know who attacked who, then we can’t convict. This isn’t complicated.
SH: C, Zimmerman wasn’t just “following Martin around for no good reason,” but was doing so while armed and with the stated intention of finding bad guys. It’s a bit bizarre that you think someone who goes out with a gun and stalks an innocent stranger walking home from the store should get to claim that the altercation he thus incited (if there was one) means that he then acted in self-defense when he ended up shooting his stalking victim to death and thus is innocent of any crime, but that the kid who reacted to being stalked had no right to defend himself against his stalker!!! This is the problem with your underlying ideology: It is an aggressive one, which incites violence, which helps to explain why America has a homicide rate from 2 to 11 times higher than any other developed nation on Earth.
Let me ask you a question, C: If the person stalked had been a white woman, who, spooked by the stalker, grabbed something to defend herself, stepped off the path out of sight, came out and confronted her stalker, ended up swinging at him and making contact, and then was shot to death, would you be as adamant that the stalker was completely devoid of responsibility for her death?
When you go out with a gun looking for bad guys, follow innocent people because you arbitrarily decide that they might be a bad guy, and end up shooting one such person to death, you are damn well responsible for the death of that person whose only crime (if any at all) was to react to being stalked by an armed assailant! That there are people in this country who can’t grasp that is horrifying.
CL: The evidence is that Zimmerman followed Martin — but there is no good evidence of who started the fight. This whole “kind who reacted to being stalked had no right to defend himself!!” line of argument is unsubstantiated. Maybe Zimmerman hunted down Martin and shot him. Maybe Zimmerman followed Martin, Martin didn’t like it and decided to attack Zimmerman, and then Zimmerman defended himself. Zimmerman is guilty of murder in the first scenario and guilty of being an idiot in the second. So far in the trial, the evidence isn’t really helping us figure out which scenario is the real one.
SH: You didn’t answer my question: If it were a white woman who had been stalked by a black guy she didn’t know, grabbed something to defend herself, stepped off the path, confronted her stalker, ended up in that confrontation taking a swing at him and making contact, and then was shot to death by the stalker (who, as it happens, wasn’t just a stalker, but an armed stalker), would you be so adamant that the stalker was or should be completely devoid of any legally enforceable responsibility for that woman’s death? I doubt it.
And what is the only difference between that scenario and the one we are discussing? The races and genders of the stalker and his victim. I even added in arming the woman being stalked with an object, to make her as threatening to her stalker as Martin was to his.
CA: Steve, would you rather police and security personnel not be armed, or not investigate further into something they can articulate to be suspicious? I don’t know what exactly happened in this instance, but it sounds like Zimmerman was a hired security professional whose job it was to provide security in the area he was in. He saw something and/or someone he thought was worth checking out, which was his job. If Martin was innocent and not doing anything wrong I imagine this would have been a quick encounter and brief conversation about how he is in the area for good reason, ie he lives there or is staying with family, and that would have been the end of it. The fact it turned into a brawl for some reason would seem to indicate Martin got caught doing something he shouldn’t have been doing by security. Zimmerman did have a gun, and he was out looking for bad guys. Thing is, bad guys don’t usually wear signs indicating to the world that they are bad guys. So police and security contact many, many perfectly innocent people all the time after seeing something that might be suspicious. An innocent person will generally provide a legitimate explanation of whatever behavior was observed that seemed suspicious and the contact is over very quickly. If in the course of determining whether or not someone is innocent or appears guilty of something, Martin attacked Zimmerman, then Martin just committed a crime and Zimmerman has a right to defend himself.
SH: No, he wasn’t “a hired security professional.” He was a neighborhood watch volunteer, which is not a credential, and is not a license to kill. And the whole point is that Zimmerman WASN’T a hired security professional, that he was told by the police dispatcher NOT TO follow Martin, that his actions were those of a private citizen reacting to his private prejudices against the instructions of the actual police, that there is no legal or moral difference between a private citizen that you identify with stalking an unarmed person you don’t identify with and a private citizen you don’t identify with stalking an unarmed person you do identify with, and that when an armed stalker ends up shooting to death the person he was stalking, that stalker is responsible for that death, even if the stalker was a self-appointed vigilante rather than a career criminal, and even if your victim was a black kid in a hoodie rather than, for instance, a middle class white woman. And, again, it is horrifying that there are still so many people in this country who can’t grasp that.
CL: What we have now is something like this:
1. A follows B
2. [[[SOMETHING HAPPENS]]]
3. A shoots B
You seem to know exactly what happened at point 2. I applaud your insight.
SH: One beloved right-wing rhetorical ploy is to filter information being considered in such a way as to arrive at a preferred conclusion (sometimes done by those on the left as well, but with far less of a “cornerstone of the ideology” aspect to it). So, let’s be more complete, shall we?
1) A goes out with a gun looking for “bad guys.”
2) B is a black kid in a hoodie walking home from a store.
3) A sees B walking through the neighborhood and decides, apparently on the basis of 2 above, that B looks suspicious.
4) A calls the police, who advise A not to follow the kid.
5) A tells the police that those “damn assholes always get away with it” (or something to that effect; I don’t have the exact quote in front of me), apparently referring to the black kid in a hoodie walking home from the store, and pursues the kid, with a gun, despite having been told by the police not to.
6) (Something happens)
7) A shoots B.
I have no idea what happened at your point 2 (my point 6). My point is that, while it may have legal relevance because of fucked-up right-wing yahoo laws, it isn’t really relevant to the moral conclusion that A is responsible for B’s death., as a result of the aggressive (and apparently racially motivated) decisions that A made which incited the incident that resulted in A killing B.
Personally, I don’t want racist whack-jobs running around with guns inciting violence, and then claiming that their having shot to death unarmed black kids walking home from the store that they decided to pursue while armed and out looking for trouble was “self-defense,” and I would probably feel even more strongly about it if my skin were darker. But, hey, that’s just me…, and every rational, decent human being on Earth.
What this exchange illustrates is the nature of the two competing ideologies in regards to violence, race, and whether to be a society driven by our fears and bigotries or a society striving to do better than that. The two overarching orientations illustrated here are discussed in greater depth and detail in Debunking The Arguments of the American Gun Culture, and a thorough analysis of the fundamental flaws of modern American right-wing thought is provided in Why The Far-Right Is On The Wrong Side Of Reason, Morality, Humanity and History.