Zimmerman Trial Hysteria
by Benjamin Studebaker
Remember a little while back when George Zimmerman killed Travyon Martin (either in self defense or out of racism, depending on who you talk to)? Of course you do. You almost certainly also know that Zimmerman was recently acquitted. This is not the only trial you probably know something about. You might also know something about the Amanda Knox trial, the Drew Peterson trial, the Casey Anthony trial, the Ariel Castro trial, the OJ Simpson trial, the Michael Jackson trial, all of the various mass shooters and their trials, any number of criminal trials in recent years that the media has attached itself to and reported the proceedings of on a day to day basis. My contention today is that you shouldn’t know about these trials. None of us should. Because they don’t matter.
Let’s be clear about what each of these trials is–it’s an anecdote. It’s an individual incident in which something horrible happened or was alleged to have happened. Typically it’s murder, abduction, rape, molestation, something of that kind. We have a rough idea of how common all of those crimes are. They’re not that common, and they get less common all the time:
But that’s not what we hear about. What we hear about are these incidents, and these incidents cause people to believe that all of this stuff is extremely common. Instead of demanding to know what the crime figures are and what’s being done to reduce their incidence even further, people demand “justice” in the various trials that pop in and out of the news. Regardless of whether or not the various individuals I listed above were guilty or not guilty, regardless of whether or not the system correctly sorted them, they are individual cases. They tell us nothing about the general efficacy of the system. Statistics tells us how the system is performing, and policies that target the system as a whole are what matter. Whether or not person X is convicted of murdering person Y is a distraction. If you follow trials, you’re one of the distracted people.
Let’s presume for the sake of argument that the decision in the George Zimmerman trial was wrong, that Zimmerman really killed Martin for racist reasons, but that the prosecution failed to prove this and/or the jury ignored it. This would provide no evidence that our justice system regularly fails in this way. We would need statistical evidence to establish that. Yet I guarantee you, if Zimmerman had been convicted, the people arguing that the system is broken would hail the victory as evidence that the system worked. They have been prevailed to evaluate the quality of our institutions on a single judgement. That is incredibly irrational. People who hold this view ought to be ashamed of themselves.
Those who praise the trial’s outcome are no better, because they would display the same kind of disgust those who disagree with it are displaying had Zimmerman been convicted. Their irrationality is just as pronounced.
People say that the Zimmerman trial shows that our system is still racist, or is just as racist as it used to be, or more racist than we realize. It isn’t. We know people are getting less racist, and I’m not just talking about the black president:
We also know that the country is going to continue to get less racist in the future, because the least racist people are the youngest:
Yes, there’s racism that statistics aren’t going to capture, but overt racism, the kind of racism that gets people actively discriminated against by employers, courts, and the system more generally, is falling, has been falling, and will continue to fall, particularly as the white population shrinks relative to the minority population.
Yes, there’s still more work to be done on race, on crime, on gender, on every social problem–although most of that work stems from the ultimate problem, poverty, which the chattering classes continue to do nothing substantive about. We need big state policies to address these issues. We don’t need “justice for Travyon” or whoever our victim of the month is. Talking about trials is time we should spend thinking about, talking about, proposing, and advancing meaningful policies to help the disadvantaged.
The most disgraceful thing about all of this is that it doesn’t take a lot of thought to see that these trials don’t mean anything. This is one of the least sophisticated, least clever posts I’ve put together all year. Yesterday’s post, about collective harms, was a much greater intellectual challenge. That leads me to believe that we are or could easily be cognoscent of this. Why are we consciously or subconsciously ignoring the irrelevance of trials?
It’s because they are entertaining in the most lurid, puerile, and voyeuristic way. Many of us purport to genuinely care about the poor, minorities, women, the disadvantaged more generally. But we don’t, at least not in a way that causes us to take meaningful action. All it causes us to do is chatter about it. We post Facebook statuses in which we announce our support of these causes, and we consider that to have been our meaningful contribution to the movement. These contributions are not meaningful, and our ability, enabled by social networks, to derive satisfaction from them causes us to feel self-satisfied. It causes us to forgo opportunities to do things that do matter, things that actually involve taking substantive time, money, or energy out our lives so as to benefit others.
What’s worse, our chattering isn’t even relevant. We don’t chatter about statistics, matters of policy, or the theories underlying those policies. We chatter about lurid trials. Anecdotes grip us emotionally and entertain us. If we’re not entertained, we don’t bother. If there isn’t a narrative, a story, all the suffering that happens in the world means nothing to us. We won’t even write a Facebook status, let alone actually do something useful, unless there’s an emotional, sappy story to drag us in.
But we can’t help it–we self-justify our behavior, we insist that the trials matter and that a grave injustice has been done. The injustice has been going on for years, and it will continue to go on. It would have continued no matter what the verdict was, but the emotional left would have turned a blind eye. If a poor black kid wants bourgeois Facebook lefties to pay him any heed, he has to go and get himself shot, and not by another poor black kid in some act of gang violence, but by a white person. Apparently, even a Hispanic will do. There has to be a blood sacrifice. The emotional left demands death.
This is the fundamental hypocrisy of the popular, emotional left, which benefits economically from the status quo while choosing to criticize that status quo, but only in meaningless, trivial ways. It only participates in the debate when it’s exciting or entertaining. If fighting suffering isn’t fun, it isn’t worthwhile to them.
Of course, I don’t blame the public itself for its voyeurism. Nor do I blame the media that feeds it–the media sells what the people want to buy. Demand dictates supply. The cause of this evil is our own nature, our tendency as human beings to be intrigued by stories but to be unaffected by mere information or abstract theory. I do not expect people reading this to suddenly change their natures and become more analytically minded, and if I did, I would be a fool. No, the cure for this is a political system that does not rely on the public at large to be intellectually competent, one in which a subset of professionals does the work of governance. The only reason it matters so much that so many people are drawn in by stories rather than by facts and theories is that these people are the ones with the power to determine the kind of government we have, and, directly as a result, we have a government that perpetuates and permits millions of people to live in a state of perpetual misery and disadvantage while the public is entertained by the gladiatorial combat of lawyers in suits. That’s what has to stop. The rest is just noise.
I – I don’t understand….. This trial made CNN’s ratings go through the roof!
I think it’s fairly productive to treat the Zimmerman case as a prompt for seriously discussing the ramifications of stand-your-ground laws, as well as personally reflecting on the utility of violence in a civilized society. Unfortunately, few people are treating it as such, thus few people are actually coming away from it with anything useful, either on the left or the right, as everyone seems to be using the case to their ideological advantage. I actually find the “Trayvon Martin was a thug who clearly deserved to be killed” faction to be the most repugnant.
News stories like this one can indeed be effectively used as a conversation starter, drawing attention to issues and opening up a productive debate with statistics and rational arguments. It’s a pity people almost never do that.
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