Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Civility, Empathy, and George Zimmerman

I'm just gonna say it- Zimmerman wasn't as bad a guy as we've all heard, and Trayvon was not as much of an innocent little cherub as we've all heard. Hold on- contain your righteous indignation for a minute or two, and hear me out.

I say what I say because most of us don't know Trayvon or Zimmerman personally, and that makes a big difference. Most of us have never been in the same room as either of them, never smelled their sweat, heard their voices (in person), seen the way their eyebrows twitch, their tongues run over their lips, their hands fold and tap nervously. We've never experienced them reacting to our unique presences. Hence, there's no way we can really know what kind of people they are (or were). 

Most of us only know them by their media images. When we react to things we hear on the news or Facebook or even The Daily Show, we're not really passing judgement on people, we're passing judgement on ideas that resemble them.

Funny enough, this was one of the first things that popped up when I searched
"Neo-Nazi gun-toting a-hole" on Google Images.

I was angry when I first heard about Zimmerman's crime. Regardless of why he did it, he killed an unarmed teenager. Whatever the law says, I consider that a crime. However, after reading this article from the Daily Mail, I learned three things I was not formerly aware of:

1. Although Zimmerman was from a gated community, he was not, as I had first assumed, an old white dude. He's got a white father and a Peruvian mother, and he's not even 30. 
2. At the time of the shooting, he was taking Tamazepan for anxiety. Excessive use of drug prescription for psychiatric issues totally isn't a problem though, right? 
3. Zimmerman was raised by a veteran of the Korean war and a Peruvian woman to be a dutiful civil servant. He has anxiety issues and his application to join the police force was rejected on the grounds that he had been arrested twice for committing violent crimes.

Before I go on, it must be said: yes, I read it in the Daily Mail, but if nothing else that is what drove home the weight of my realization of how skewed this whole issue has become. Because to learn any of this, I had to read it in the f***ing Daily Mail.

I don't believe it's possible that race didn't play any part in Zimmerman's actions because I don't believe anyone is immune from making racist judgements now and again. Like a lot of human personality traits, it's a quality that exists on a spectrum. In Zimmerman's case, it's probably more severe, given his history with race-driven actions. Even I assumed initially that Zimmerman, a man from a gated community with a German surname, was probably a crazy, old, rich white guy.

While racism doubtless contributed to it, I do not think Zimmerman's thoughts before confronting Trayvon fell along the lines of "gotta kill them dern darkies what be stealin' our stuff." I think his underlying motives were the product of a strong yet invalidated desire to contribute martial civil service to his community.

Basically, Trayvon Martin was killed by an overzealous wannabe cop.

Nobody is all good or all bad. We all know that, but knowing it doesn't matter if we don't use that knowledge when passing judgement on other people. Again, I first assumed Zimmerman was a rich old white guy, and hence was as a given, crazy and racist...and I'm a white male.

Zimmerman is part Hispanic, part white. At time of writing he is 29, not old. He lived in a gated community, but he was hardly rich.

The media is having a field day with this case, and we owe it to both Trayvon and Zimmerman to remember that. Trayvon's life ended long before it truly began. Unfortunately, the point of mass media is to use that kind of information as a means to do business. Whatever kind of person he was or might have become, Trayvon deserved better than to be made into a sanctimonious idol through which political agendas are driven, through which money is made. Let us mourn Trayvon, do what we can to make sure it doesn't happen again, and move on. The fact is that making him into a martyr is the easiest way to turn this whole farce into something far worse.

Like him or not, Zimmerman is a human being who made a very big mistake. He made that mistake due to profound ignorance, something everyone is capable of, no matter how good or smart we think we are. Condemn him if you must; one day you might do wrong to a similarly egregious extent, and it'll be you who needs forgiveness. We can condemn him, and further condition ourselves as a people to punish offenders without mercy. We can cause more pain to ripple through Florida, the United States, and the world at large by destroying Zimmerman's life through condemnation and ostracization. We can give dignity to the idea of turning human beings into angels or demons, ideas rather than organisms. Or, we can seek to understand and forgive them, punish them no more or less than they deserve, and attempt to salvage a passionate, if disillusioned young man for the good of society.

For our own sakes, let us strive handle this tragedy with not only passion, but also reason, civility, and empathy.