A Good Name - pt 14
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woohooligan Sep 14, 2016
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I know these guys, Terry and Marion. Would you guess they're tough guys? Would you guess they've been in a few fights or that they could take a punch? Most people answer no to those questions, despite not having any meaningful information leading to that answer. At this moment you only know their names, and although it has no bearing on their relative "toughness", most people have already decided they aren't "tough guys" just based on those names. Swap those names out however, call them Bruce and Chuck and you get a totally different answer. Certainly Chuck Norris and Bruce Wayne are "tough guys", but it's not the name that makes them so. To say a guy's tough because his name is "Bruce" is as silly as to say that he's not because his name is Terry. Marion and Terry happen to be Marion Robert Morrison and Terry Gene Bollea, better known as John Wayne and Hulk Hogan. Okay, I know of them, I don't know them personally, but that's beside the point. I bring them up as an example of how quickly simple information influences us and often leads us to the wrong conclusions.

Cognitive scientists have a long list of biases that influence our perception and our behavior from groupthink to something as simple as framing or even rhyming. Fortunately for us, most of the time we don't need to be right about everything. You can zip along through your day hapily believing a thousand misatributed quotes like PT Barnum's sucker who's born every minute, and at the end of the day there's no horrible consequence for believing them, despite the fact that PT Barnum never said that! (Oh, the irony!)

The truth is we can't trust our own brains, because they talk too much shit... but if we can't trust that, then what can we trust? Thankfully we can trust each other... human nature. While it's true these biases make it possible for some people to manipulate us, those people are rare (we call them hucksters, shysters or con artists). It's only because good folk like us outnumber the cheaters by such an overwhelming majority that our species survives! No race made entirely of cheaters could survive more than a generation or so. Having said that, it's probably also true that one of our most prominent biases, the truth bias, the tendency to believe what we hear or read (the reason for all those misattributed quotes), only exists because most of us are good people. We certainly wouldn't default to believing everyone if we evolved in a world surrounded by murderers and thieves! We believe most people because most people are our friends and neighbors and while we do lie (a lot!), we're mostly good people. Most of the time, believing those lies falls in the same category as the misattributed quote -- embarassing to discover, but ultimately harmless. And since there's no horrible consequence for believing the lie most of the time, we've evolved to a) lie to each other and b) believe each other. D'oh!

As I've said, most of the time it's fine. Most of the time it's answering "does this dress make me look fat?" or "yes, grandma, I love these socks you got me for Christmas." Most of the time we're believing lies that not only do we ourselves tell, but that we encourage our children to tell. Don't tell me you encourage your children to be honest with grandma about those socks! You liar!

Our news media claim they help us cut through the crap and get to the truth of the world around us with slogans like "fair and balanced" and "spin-free zone". Unfortunately expecting truth from our news media is like expecting accuracy from a fun-house mirror. Our news outlets often encourage the crap and make it worse. Look at the reporting on just climate change alone. There are a handful of scientists who buck the trend and say "no, human activity doesn't cause any change in climate!" They're a tiny minority, but through the magic of news media, many of us believe they're basically half of the scientific community. Some "serious" news show brings on two guys to argue about climate change and since we only see two people representing both sides, we assume the news staff have done the responsible thing and brought us an issue that actually divides the scientific community. The reality is they brought us one person who represents the majority of scientists and some other basement-dwelling, tinfoil-hat-wearing guy with his dire prediction that "THE END IS A HOAX! BUY MORE OIL!" Of course we believe most of it, not just because we're wired to believe what we hear, but because the news media developed a largely undeserved reputation for honesty. Can they really be all that honest when they're people like us (that is to say, liars) and when their salary is paid by corporate sponsorships? Isn't their real job to promote what sells? What drives eyeballs to their stories so they can sell ads? Isn't that the reason they've been clickbaiting us for decades, (long before the internet), with headlines like "it's the deadliest toxin in the world, and it might be in your soup! You won't want to miss the news at 10:00!" And these media distortions are all BEFORE even considering well-known cases of corporations like the tobacco or lead industries (Flint Michigan anyone?) deliberately funding junk science and getting all the news coverage they want to spread disinformation.

In fact, the news media have deliberately distorted our view of reality for decades and we're happy to let them! In the news media there's an old saying, "if it bleeds, it leads." This is one case in which the rhyme actually is true. News media deliberately pick out the ugliest, bloodiest events they can find to headline their shows, no matter how much the crime rate actually drops 1 2 because they believe gore improves their ratings. While they may be right about their ratings, it has the unfortunate effect of making good people like you and me believe the lie that crime is rising in America when they see these news reports every day. It's like the one weirdo they brought on to deny climate change before, except they do this every day. It's like your doctor calling you every day to say, "we had another cancer patient at the hospital today." Cancer is really rare! But if an authority is telling you about it every day, you're going to think it's everywhere! It's our natural response to think what we see most often happens most often, but when we rely on TV and the internet, that's often not true. And there's a good chance that Fox News in particular, since it dwarfs all other news sources in trust from conservatives, has been literally scaring the shit out of conservatives for decades now, making them far more fearful and unhappy than they otherwise would be.

Fortunately most of the media's lies are also relatively harmless, and the good news here is you don't have to feel bad about not watching bad news anymore!... That is, if you've been watching the news and not just checking Facebook.

But what about those times when the lie is harmful? What about those times when we need to get it right? There's good news and bad news. The bad news is that the importance of a subject doesn't magically make us better, more rational judges of the world around us. We're still as prone as ever to all those biases. The good news is that we're not entirely powerless against those distortions.

All these biases that lead us to bad judgements are the reason why we have a complex judicial system that calls for a jury of twelve of your peers if you've been accused of a crime. (Okay, yes, it's more complicated than that...) Also, while it's horrible for a person to commit a crime, it's a founding principal of our law that convicting the wrong person is the worst possible outcome, worse even than the crime itself. This is true even or especially in the case of the ultimate crime of murder. If it's bad for a person to rob someone, then it's worse if the robber frames someone else because not only do they avoid the consequences for their crime, someone else is being undully punished and because the rest of the public believe (wrongly) that justice was served, the robber is free to rob others! Of course that's bad if it's robbery; it's far worse if it's murder. That's the reason our judicial system requires "innocent until proven guilty" and "proven beyond the shadow of a doubt." It's this need to get the trial right, combined with all our very human flaws and biases, that require us to use juries. It's not perfect! Just getting twelve people to agree on something doesn't make it true. There are loads of lies or you might call them "myths" that almost all of us believe! Just ask Adam Conover! And the victories of the Innocence Project prove that juries still get it wrong sometimes, but with all our flaws, a jury of twelve with a structured trial and regulated evidence is a lot better than the judgement of any one man.

For better or worse, Trayvon Martin's death touched every American. Any unnecessary death is a tragedy and I think we have a responsibility to learn from it, to use the tragedy to make the world a better place. That's hard to do when our limited understanding and our powerful need for closure have already lead many of us to conclusions that evidence can't confirm. As I publish this page I trust that most of you loyal readers and good people will forgive me injecting a bit of soberness in my comedy. At the same time I know that many will be offended by my portrayal. A lot of people have made heroes and villains of both Trayvon Martin and of George Zimmerman. In the process, they turned what should have been a complex, human story with a lot of confounding details into an unfortunate black and white with just two sides. If you're for Zimmerman then you're against Martin and vice-versa. And many people will be offended that I haven't taken a side, but that's not the real world, it's just a convenient fiction and making everything a war between liberals and conservatives is as useful as a condom dispenser in a Vatican bathroom.

There are no sides in the real world. Our lives aren't game theory, they're complicated and precious.

Some will be offended that I don't say Zimmerman deliberately murdered Martin because he was black and others will be equally offended that I don't say Martin deliberately tried to murder Zimmerman... I think most of us (myself included) would find it easier if we could just say one or the other because that certainty is easy, eliminating the need to think critically about the events and what they mean for our friends and neighbors. Dealing with uncertainty is hard. But as much as we want those answers, the evidence for either is at best ambiguous. This ambiguity is all the more infuriating when we know that news media misled the public about Zimmerman's 911 call, that hackers tainted Martin's social media and made it useless, and that local police mishandled evidence. It leaves us with precious little that we can know as a fact about Trayvon's death. I could easily lose myself in a detailed examination of the facts here... lord knows I've spent a lot of hours reading about it... I won't because a lot of people have already done that, so I'm going to focus on something I learned that I think is not often said.

We know that George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin with his legally licensed handgun. We know that Florida's stand your ground shoot-first law required that police let Zimmerman go with his gun prior to the trial. What a lot of people don't realize is that "stand your ground" was never invoked in court. While it's true that Zimmerman's attorney considered invoking it, he ultimately decided he could adequately defend Zimmerman's actions with traditional self-defense law. Even without a shoot-first law, the jury are given this instruction (I'm paraphrasing): you must acquit Zimmerman if you think it's even in the realm of possibility that Trayvon Martin attacked him. Is that in the realm of possibility? Yes. Is it likely? Hell no. So the high-water mark for having no consequences after killing an unarmed person is to say, "he attacked me," and have people believe you. Moreover Zimmerman claimed that Trayvon pressed a hand over his mouth and already bloody nose and held them closed... and somehow he managed to do that with a bare hand and receive NO defenseive bite marks or DNA evidence on his hands. Zimmerman testified that his head had been slammed against the concrete 20-25 times until he felt like his "head would explode", which isn't the condition the police officer found him in literally a minute later. The Chief Medical Examiner even testified that his wounds were superficial, requiring no more than a band-aid, easily within the realm of what could have been self-inflicted within moments of the struggle. And Zimmerman testified that he knew nothing about Florida's self-defense laws despite completing 149 hours toward a criminal law degree and his professor testifying that he was the best student in a class that thoroughly covered them. So unless George Zimmerman is really David Copperfield in disguise, he purjured himself in front of the jury and yet he received no consequences for even that. In fact, the news media and others have since rewarded Zimmerman, showering him with attention and boat-loads of cash for amateur paintings and for his gun at auction, a sale he said he was "honored and humbled to announce" as though he were receiving a medal. The word "frustrating" here feels horribly inadequate.

Do I believe that Zimmerman set out to murder someone? No. If he wanted to do that, why would he choose to do it in plain view of everyone in the middle of his own neighborhood? That seems about as likely as the idea that Trayvon suddenly tried kill a perfect stranger in an open street in his father's neighborhood and with no provocation. Frankly, the idea I've presented here is far more plausible: that Zimmerman used his gun to scare someone (it wouldn't be the only time) and it ended badly. But for the moment I'd like you to set aside whether you think either of them had murder on their mind. I think we should all strive to make the world a better place and as I said before, that comes with the responsibility of learning from tragedies like this. Personally I think at least one important lesson can be learned by asking just two questions here.

First, given what we know about Trayvon's death, how hard is it for a person to get away with murder? Couldn't you just call someone into the alley behind a bar and when people question what happened just say "he was drunk and he attacked me?"

The second question is this: if that's where the bar for murder is already, do we really want to lower that bar with "stand your ground" laws?

Okay, now that I've kept it as real as I know how, I promise next week I'll bring more laughs. This is the climax of Amity's conversation with Trayvon, which I felt was important to a longer story I'm telling. And there is one other thing I'd like you to take away from this page. Yes, as many people have said, Trayvon and Zimmerman both made their fair share of mistakes, they're human after all. Zimmerman was overly paranoid, creating a neighborhood watch program that the homeowners' association didn't feel they needed (and that as far as I can tell consisted only of George Zimmerman), calling 911 about "suspicious people" in his neighborhood fifty times in eight years (that's every seven weeks on average), and when Trayvon walked by his car, acting creepy and rolling his window up instead of saying hi like a normal person (this is on the 911 call). Certainly Trayvon made mistakes too... none of them as far as I can tell on that particular evening. It certainly didn't help his family that he had skipped school, vandalized lockers and might have stolen some jewelry... but none of that bears on the events leading to his death. None of us exist in a vacuum and peer pressure is intense, especially for young kids with underdeveloped impulse control, so you'd be hard pressed to find a kid Trayvon's age who wasn't getting into one kind of trouble or another. The mistakes my kids are making seem to be more financial in nature, like mine were at their age. So perhaps Trayvon developed a reputation for being a "troublemaker" in some circles, but just because you or I think that's a "bad thing" doesn't mean that's not exactly the reputation Trayvon wanted. A reputation for being a "bad boy" will get you quite far in some circles, just ask Kanye West or P. Diddy.

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