not a beautiful or unique snowflake (nothings) wrote,
not a beautiful or unique snowflake

knowledge and certainty

When Amanda Knox was on trial for murder in Italy, I remember being struck by the ease with which I formed the opinion that she was probably innocent. She was half a world away and so were the events that had taken place. I was just following along with the American media/social-networking spin that here was someone who was being abused by a legal system because she was a foreigner.

When I realized how easily I was accepting a canned narrative, I had to stop and think. I couldn't take back that gut instinct, that feeling she was innocent, but I could know it for what it was -- an easily manipulated irrational jump to judgement with little-to-no-bearing on the truth.

This wasn't that hard for me, because this wasn't the first time I'd thought about it. I'd often been struck by the ease with which people could find a jury verdict to be a 'miscarriage of justice'. Despite not having been there in the court to hear the evidence--despite only hearing everything fourth-hand, through heavy media spin, people could so easily be certain of someone's guilt or innocence. Yes, sometimes people get off on technicalities; sometimes passing judgement on a jury verdict isn't unreasonable. But most of the time it really is.

So I've been feeling pretty awkward about this whole Trayvon Martin thing. There's certainly one clear thing: he really shouldn't be dead, and we have handguns and "stand your ground" laws to blame. Regardless of who started it, the death is a terrible, terrible outcome.

But that's not the direction most people are coming from. Most people have decided that Trayvon Martin didn't start it; that George Zimmerman shot an innocent kid, unprovoked. Certainly Zimmerman's actions leading up to the event are pretty reprehensible, and his choice to carry a handgun questionable. But these things don't to me make a pattern that means he is unambigously the kind of guy who would attack or kill a black dude without provocation.

Zimmerman's story is, unsurprisingly, that Martin attacked him. Can we as easily reject that Martin could have attacked Zimmerman first? We don't have the narrative convenience of Martin going around stalking white guys to make convenient sense of it. We're told Martin was just an unthreatening kid coming home from the store. This is some kind of story, but does it get at the truth? Do we actually know enough about Martin to know he couldn't have started it?

Martin's parents think they do:

The attorney for George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last month, said Monday that Martin initiated the confrontation, beating his client so badly he suffered a broken nose and injuries to the back of his head.

Martin’s parents and their attorney, preparing to fly to Washington for a congressional briefing Tuesday, disputed the account, which contradicted their long-standing assertions that Zimmerman had attacked their son without provocation.

The problem is that Martin's parents have no idea what happened; this appears to be a narrative they have invented solely from their knowledge of Trayvon Martin's character. And they're his parents.

The problem we have in this case is an information asymmetry; only one person is alive to tell his side of the story. We feel a need to find some kind of balance; to attempt to provide some kind of version of the other side's story. But when we choose the most extreme, biased source to construct a purely fictional alternative narrative, we should at least hesitate and think about what's going on.

Kids don't always show the same person to their parents that they do to others. That the parents' narrative paint him as a harmless saint should be unsurprising but also unconvincing. Maybe he was a great, harmless guy. Maybe he was the kind of guy who would start a fight with a racist who was following him around. I have no idea, and I don't really think any of you do either (although you may think you do).

I do not have an opinion on who started it--on whether Zimmerman is guilty of murder. This doesn't mean I think they're 50/50 responsible. I'm refusing to apportion blame at all, not splitting it. For people who have formed an opinion, I would like them to think about what sort of evidence it would take to change their mind. What if an eyewitness came forward verifying Zimmerman's version of events; would that change your mind? (The police claim they have one.) What if the eyewitness was black? What if there was video?

I honestly think there are some people who would say something like "well, sure, if video happened, but no such video could possibly turn up, because I know Zimmerman is guilty". If those people are personal friends or family of Trayvon Martin, then I'm sympathetic. But for everybody else who might feel that way, I'm a bit worried that there's a rush to judgement here based on feelings, not facts. We really don't know Trayvon Martin, and don't know what he might or might not have done.

Yes, racism is terrible, and it plays a major role in the chain of events that leads to someone like Martin being dead, whereas someone like me, a white 45-year old, would never experience that chain of events in the first place. But we can point fingers beyond racism. Two things I'm really sure of is that Martin shouldn't be dead and that information asymmetry when one party to an altercation is dead or in a coma seriously hinders our ability to uncover the truth. The solution to both of these problems is to discourage things that leave parties to an altercation dead: to attack handgun ownership and get rid of terrible "stand your ground" laws.

Like I said, I don't know Trayvon Martin. It's hard (and unfair) to try to imagine what he was capable of, but I feel obligated to because of the rush to judgement against Zimmerman. So: if I picture him as Wallace from The Wire? Then I can't imagine Zimmerman as anything but a murderer. But sticking to "The Wire" really limits the possibility space. How about if I imagine him as my friend Jay?

Jay is a skinny guy. I can't imagine think you'd think he was scary if you met him. In the last three years Jay's gotten into three fights that I know of. One time he hit a guy for spitting on the sidewalk near him as he walked past. Can I imagine Jay getting in a fight with some guy who was stalking him in a suspicious manner? Easily. Can I imagine Jay getting shot by that guy after provoking the fight? Well, now I can, sadly.

I'm not trying to put Trayvon Martin down by implying he might be like my friend Jay. I'm just saying nothing on the table makes that scenario impossible, or even necessarily improbable.

I'm certainly not trying to say Martin was an impetuous, volatile youth. I have no idea whether he was or wasn't one. But my point is I'm not sure why both options aren't the table. And I don't say this is a possibility for his character because he was a 17-year old black kid. I say this is a possibility for his character because Jay is a white millionaire in his 40s.
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