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What does the Trayvon Martin case mean? What *should* it mean? part 1

If one were to judge from the media coverage—the dueling depictions of the characters of the shooter and his victim; the minute dissections of fragmentary witness statements; the “expert” voice-identification of screams picked up in the background of a 911 call; the high-resolution scrutiny of  low-resolution of video footage of the shooter in police custody that reveal the existence/absence of telltale wounds—one would think that the significance of the Trayvon Martin case turns (or ultimately will turn) decisively on the facts.

In actuality, the opposite is true: the significance we attach to the case will determine our perception of the facts; and because what it signifies turns on cultural meanings that divide our society, the members of different groups will form highly opposed understandings of what happened that terrible night.

Does that mean it’s pointless to be discussing the case?

On the contrary. In my view, the public agitation the case has provoked is evidence of how important it is for us to have a public conversation about the diversity of our cultural outlooks and their relation to law, and that this case is an ideal occasion for addressing that issue.

But if we insist that the discussion take the form of competing, culturally partial (and even culturally partisan) renditions of the facts, we are highly unlikely to engage the real issues in a universally meaningful way. And in that circumstance, we can be sure that the sources of agitation will persist.

I have more to say than it makes sense to put in one post.  So regard this as installment 1 of 3.

1. Meanings are cognitively prior to fact

The Trayvon Martin case, polls unsurprisingly reveal, divides people along cultural lines.

In this sense, it is very much like a host of other high-profile types of cases: public altercations leading to a mixed-race killing (think Bernard Goetz and Howard Beach); the slaying (or mutilation; think Lorena Bobbitt) of sleeping men by female partners who allege chronic abuse; the prosecutions (William Kennedy Smith)—or not (Duke lacrosse)—of men alleged to have disregarded women's verbal resistance to sexual intercourse; forceful arrests of political protestors (Occupy Wall Street; Operation Rescue) pepper sprayed by police—or of fleeing drivers whose bodies are broken by the impact of their crashing cars (Scott v. Harris) or the fusillade of baton blows of their pursuers (Rodney King).

CCP has conducted experimental studies of cases like these. What we have found, in all of these contexts, is that people unconsciously form perceptions of fact that reflect their stance on the cultural meanings the cases convey.

Those committed to norms of honor and self-reliance, on the one hand, and those who value equality and collective concern, on the other; those who believe women warrant esteem for mastery of traditionally female domestic roles and those who believe women as well as men should be conferred status for success in civil society; those who place a premium on respect for authority and those who apprehend the abuse of it as a paramount evil—all see different things in these types of cases, even when they are forming their perceptions on the basis of the same evidence.

Moreover, members of all these groups know that what one sees (or claims to see; each group always suspects the other of disingenuousness) depends on who one is culturally speaking.

As a result, in controversies over these sorts of cases, those on both sides come to view competing factual claims as markers of opposing allegiances.  The ultimate resolution of these facts in courts of law, in turn, becomes evidence of who counts and who doesn’t in an our society.

These are identity-threatening conditions. It is the extreme anxiety that they provoke that explains how despite knowing next to nothing about what actually happened—because we have nothing more to go on than factual snippets embroidered with righteous denunciation in the media, or antiseptic renditions of the “facts of the case” in appellate reporters—we nevertheless become filled with passionate certitude about the events. The discovery that others disagree with us fills us with incredulity and rage.

And most extraordinary of all, this same environment of symbolic status competition explains why such disagreement persists in the face of the most compelling forms of evidence of all. Even when we literally see the events with our own eyes—as we do when they are recorded on video, e.g.—cultural cognition assures that we will disagree about we are seeing

We will disagree, in such instances, with those who hold values different from ours when we watch what we understand to be the same event.

Moreover, we will disagree with those who share our values if, as a result of a hidden experimental manipulation, we start with different impressions of the sort of event (abortion-clinic protest, or anti-war protest) we are watching.

Barely detectable above the cacophony in the Trayvon Martin case are a few lonely voices cautioning us not to jump to conclusions. We don’t really know enough about what happened, they rightly point out, to form such strong opinions.

But the truth is, we’ll never know what happened, because we—the members of our culturally pluralistic society—have radically different understandings of what a case like this means.

The questions are whether it makes sense to talk about that, and if so, what should we be saying?


Dan M. Kahan & Donald Braman, The Self-defensive Cognition of Self-defense, 45 Am Crim Law Rev 1 (2008).

Dan M. Kahan, The Supreme Court 2010 Term—Foreword: Neutral Principles, Motivated Cognition, and Some Problems for Constitutional Law 126 Harv. L. Rev. 1 (2011)

Dan M. Kahan, Culture, Cognition, and Consent: Who Perceives What, and Why, in 'Acquaintance Rape' Cases, 158 University of Pennsylvania Law Review 729 (2010).


Dan M. Kahan, David A. Hoffman, Donald Braman, Danieli Evans & Jeffrey J. Rachlinski, They Saw a Protest: Cognitive Illiberalism and the Speech-Conduct Distinction, 64 Stan. L. Rev. (forthcoming 2012).

Mark Kelman, Reasonable Evidence of Reasonableness, 17 Critical Inquiry 798-817 (1991). 


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Reader Comments (3)

I agree that preexisting mental sets, or frames, shape how people will interpret the "facts" of a situation. People have ideological commitments that lead them to understand a situation in ways that affirm their values. These commitments impair their ability to perceive accurately and reason soundly. Their thinking is overwhelmed by emotional reactivity. Facts are selected or shaved to fit their cherished narrative. It is a "fact" that eyewitness accounts are routinely unreliable.

However, I can’t agree that "we will never know what happened." Instead, I would say, "we will never know exactly what happened." There will always be ambiguities and misperceptions and even absolute gaps that will plague any attempt to reconstruct the events of that evening. But that doesn't mean we are condemned to ignorance. There are actual first hand records of what transpired on the evening in question, i.e., the 911 call and Trayvon's cellphone conversation with his girlfriend. There are time sequences that correspond to these phone records that have enabled some investigators to reconstruct the movements of the two men - who was where when, when they were in sight of each other and when they were out of sight, who was following whom and who approached whom when. There are medical and forensic evidence that will help construct a narrative consistent with reality. For example, George Zimmerman either had a broken nose and scrapes on his head or he didn't. Which one proves to be true (verifiable) is a matter of consequence. John Adams had it right:

Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.

John Adams, 'Argument in Defense of the Soldiers in the Boston Massacre Trials,' December 1770

Far too many in the media, and especially those "leaders" whose cast reality in the image of their self-importance, prefer to follow Ronald Reagan’s version of the Adam’s quotation: “Facts are stupid things.” But we should not look to the least to determine the most we are capable of. People are able to suspend (bracket) their assumptions and describe a phenomena in way that discloses reality with greater completeness and subtlety. These trained observers can apprehend aspects of the phenomena that untrained observers will completely miss. Most people notice very little about the world around them. But if your eyes are peeled and your intention is to look deeply and you are aware of your biases and blind spots and you check your perceptions with others, then the things can begin to speak for themselves. Add to that the capacity to reason, to think clearly and human beings are powerfully equipped to know a whole lot about what happened. The “fact” that complete objectivity is unattainable is no reason to embrace a nihilistic epistemology.

April 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert J. Feikema

I'm having a problem with the link that begins with the phrase "norms of honor and self-reliance."

April 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNW

I've corrected the problem, NW.

April 17, 2012 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

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