Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Keeping Appearances

In response to this survey about the murder trial of George Zimmerman, I composed some thoughts on managing threat-perception and response.

If we all got what we deserved, life as we know it would not exist. I am not personally eager to alter the decision of the court (which I support as an institution even when it renders individual decisions that I or others might dislike).

I don't say that Zimmerman had no right to be where he was, doing as he did (even). But to Marc's point, I think he might have done better (either by checking himself before he exited the truck or by being better prepared to defend himself with appropriate force: he relied on the gun too much, I think, and too little on the body manipulating it).

What interests me here is thinking about how my behavior will play out in future, as I seek to avoid being either Zimmerman (the man who can only defend himself by killing people) or Martin (the man who tempts fate by putting a coward's back to the wall: in calling Zimmerman a coward here, I am not saying he is a bad person). There will always be people who see me as threatening and have occasion to overreact to my threat (even if it is entirely imaginary, as I am not sure it was in this case). How do I "play it smart" so as to minimize the likelihood of my (1) sending threat-signals and (2) overreacting to what I perceive as someone else's threat-signals.

(2) Zimmerman was on alert because of recent burglaries. He was understandably anxious to make sure none occurred uncontested on his watch. His mistake was being poorly trained in effective violence. I personally believe that violence is sometimes necessary, and that every able-bodied person who accepts the responsibility of carrying weapons simultaneously takes up the responsibility of learning to use them appropriately (i.e. only when they are really needed). Zimmerman should have been "good enough" at fighting hand-to-hand not to kill Martin, I think. This does not make his killing illegal--or deny that it was most unfortunate. For me it means that we (i.e. ordinary citizens with weapons, not lawmakers or the legal system) need to do some work dispelling the myth that merely carrying a weapon makes anybody safer. The best weapon is a fully engaged human CNS.

(1) The media played the racist card here, but I confess I see that as a red herring. Racism is one of those issues (like gender) that is undoubtedly important at the level of communities: I don't deny that. Its role in individual encounters, however, is hard to define: in this case, all the evidence I see points away from its being significant. (And I admit I am biased by my own experience here, experience which tells me that I always prefer my friends--black, brown, yellow, red, or white--over people I don't know, especially in charged situations where I fear crime. Zimmerman was afraid of Martin because he was an unknown dude loitering in a neighborhood plagued by recent burglaries, not because American society as a whole has issues with racism. This appears clear when you consider Zimmerman's own history of peaceful engagement with black folk.)

The real issue is how to avoid sending threat-signals. First, it is necessary to notice that you cannot turn them off entirely. People will always feel threatened by you at some point, not always because you are really dangerous to them. Martin's mistake appears (to me) to have been escalating a bad situation. When I see a Zimmerman lurking in my rearview mirror, I will remember Martin and refrain from jumping him (since he might have a gun and not know how to avoid using it). Looking over Martin's life-history (imperfectly summarized in the link above, among other places), it seems he had an unrealistic idea of what fighting means. For him, fighting was something males do to show dominance (e.g. the dude he mentions roughing up after school). He didn't pause to consider that not every man out there is always going to "duke it out" in the manner of rams in rut (boxers in the ring, wrestlers on the mat). He misread Zimmerman (as Zimmerman misread himself, putting himself in a position too vulnerable for his fighting capability).

To me this case provides an opportunity for me to revisit how I construct my persona (the threat profile I project into the world) and my response to others' personae (the threat I perceive from other people in my vicinity). I cannot make myself appear universally unthreatening (nor would I want to, honestly: the world has some bad people in it, and I would rather they fear me). Nor can I correct the error in judgement that nature has built into my own threat-perception: the species survives because we are paranoid, seeing danger that isn't always there. That said, I can prepare myself to act responsibly on the reality that my environment presents constant threats. I can become more effective than Zimmerman in dealing out appropriate violence (starting with the rule that I don't charge in with my only defense being "kill the other guy!"), and more effective than Martin in allaying the threat others may feel from me (starting with the rule that I don't jump people who tail me).

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