Sociological Ruminations on a Certain Trial in Florida

I have made a point not to watch any of the George Zimmerman trial, even though it’s been all over the media. I’m not a Trayvon Martin apologist. I don’t wish ill for Zimmerman. As others have suggested in the last eighteen hours, a not guilty verdict doesn’t mean there was no guilt present. It means that there was not sufficient evidence to meet the burden of proof written into our judicial system. There are only two people who really know what happened that night in February and one of them is dead. Everyone else is guessing.

There is still much for a sociologist to reflect upon. So here, in no particular order, are my reflections.

1. This was a local story. It’s a tragedy, of course. Regardless of the narrative that saw Trayvon as an aggressor or the one that saw George as a vigilante, it was an event in a small town in northern Florida. It never deserved to be the latest source of our national fascination with crime. It used to be that to avoid such exaggerations, I just had to avoid Nancy Grace. Now I can’t watch television or use the internet.

2. The story that should have been covered by the media involves the implications of Stand Your Ground laws. While the racial backdrop of the story is real (more below), the context of a bad law creates the context for the encounter. It’s worth looking at the actual wording of the Florida statute, even if Zimmerman used a self-defense strategy rather than SYG. Here’s the relevant passage for the Florida criminal code:

A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

This law is pretty much the model the conservative group ALEC has been providing to state legislators. But it’s bad law — not just because it deals with SYG but because there’s so much inference necessary in its implementation. When I first taught criminology, I told my students that good law had to be specific. Instead, we have a statute dependent upon what the actor “reasonably believes” about “himself or herself or another or to prevent a felony”. Who determines reasonable belief? Who evaluates whether necessity exists? What is the deal with “death or great bodily harm”? Where are those lines?

3. The social psychology of perception is the centerpiece of the case. Both Martin and Zimmerman had to take in a series of environmental cues (race is a key one) to determine a definition of the situation that would then frame potential courses of action. As W.I. Thomas wrote in the 1920s, “if  a [person] defines a situation as real it is real in its consequences”. The Thomas Theorem helps explain why Zimmerman would assume a young black man was a threat. It can explain why Martin felt force was necessary in striking back. There are far too many stimuli in an ambiguous situation allowing people to misread the situation. This was consistently shown in the innovative bystander intervention studies social psychologists conducted in the 1970s. Ambiguity is the enemy of rational action. Of course, SYG legislation raises the stakes in this otherwise uncertain situation.

4. The Criminal Justice system is not good at moral evaluation. This piece by Andrew Cohen from today’s Atlantic makes the case brilliantly. When one considers the structure of the adversarial system, the limitations on evidence, and the difficulty of demonstrating clear intent on the part of the accused, it’s hard to make a clear case. Restorative Justice advocates like Howard Zehr observe that the victim (in this case Martin’s family) has little role in the criminal justice process. Their needs are irrelevant to the back-and-forth of the two teams of advocates (the defendant is also a curious bystander encouraged to show no reaction at all during months of trial). Victimizing the victim is a legitimate defense strategy used when the goal is to introduce reasonable doubt.

5. The cable news networks  damaged the ability to explore the moral dynamics of the case. The unnecessary wall-to-wall coverage with their pet legal scholars failed in the essential task to inform. It was a blatant attempt at ratings manipulation — first in the discussions of whether charges should be filed and then in the day-to-day coverage of the trial itself. Their focus seemed on propelling a narrative more than exploring what happened. In the last two days, I heard Fox commentators denying that race is a factor in American Criminal Justice and complaining about politicization of the arraignment process (“Did you ever bring charges as a result of political pressure?”). CNN folks brought back Marcia Clark from the OJ trial (apparently without disclaimers regarding her expertise in sensational cases). They brought on racial experts to talk about assumptions about black youth. They brought on others to dispute that claim. Never did they explore the realities of a complex case with lots of moving parts. During the prosecution’s case, they piled on Zimmerman. During the defense, they picked holes in the prosecution’s case. Like sportscasters, they reported on which team had momentum without addressing what they talked about last week.

6. An unexplored component of this story is our fascination with guns. In spite of good evidence about victimization, we still celebrate the “heroic” effort of someone who used a firearm to stop the bad guy. It’s not surprising given our fascination with the tough guy image in entertainment culture. Try counting up the damage and dead bodies in an average hour of crime television (NCIS Los Angeles is my best illustration — they run about 6-8 dead bad guys a week). Even the Lone Ranger killed the bad guys (which he didn’t do on television).

7. We used this local story as a lens through which to identify our national inability to deal adequately with the complexities of age, race, and class. Too much time was spent picking winners and losers. Martin was an innocent or a thug. Zimmerman was a hero or a police-wannabe infatuated with his own supposed authority. The world is complex. As long as our discussions involve the choices of a) calling people racist who act on racist motives and b) declaring that we’re now in a post-racial society, we will never begin to deal honestly with what it means to live in a racially and ethnically diverse society. There are byproducts of privilege (check out Christena Cleveland’s excellent piece here) and its opposite that filter throughout the social fabric. That’s part of this story but not all the story is about.

When stories like the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case polarize the nation, we should be exploring why people come down in such different places. If we’d spend time on Facebook, Twitter, and Cable News exploring the reasons for these different views, we’d make progress. If all we do is to nod at our own folks and call others names, we can expect more of the same.

8 thoughts on “Sociological Ruminations on a Certain Trial in Florida

  1. Thanks John. It is really too bad we can’t find the space for thoughtful conversation about these things. And reading people in venues like Facebook, make me nervous about people’s binary and simplistic polarization of very complex issues of neighborliness in a multicultural world.

    1. I appreciate it Marty.

      One of the broad ideas I’ve been exploring in my writing in recent years is hinted at in the second to the last sentence. In our postmodern society, we seem to think that I have the right to my views and that those should be valued because they’re mine.

      In contrast, I’m arguing that this is an important but incomplete step. I need to share my views along with their presumptions. You need to share yours as well. That’s where the hard work begins of listening to the other, considering what was said, and relying on the Holy Spirit to lead us to the best path for navigating the differences.

  2. I, like everyone else, see the world through the lens of my life experience and am at best a jaded observer, not capable, in most cases, of unbiased observation. Realizing this, I recently have chosen to not listen to TV cable outlets as I feel that too often, the truth lies somewhere between Fox and MSNBC. I study sociology as I realize my shortcomings and desperately struggle to understand how growing up and being educated in American society colors my vision. This piece was refreshing. I only wish I could consistently see the facts as clearly.

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