In part 1, I argued that what the Trayvon Martin case means won’t turn on what the facts are found to be.
On the contrary, what we understand the facts to be will turn on what the case means to us as members of one or another cultural group.
Public reactions to the case display the characteristic signature of cultural cognition--the tendency of people to fit the perception of legally consequential facts to their group commitments.
The influence of cultural cognition explains why people with different outlooks and identities are forming such strong and divergent understandings of what happened despite their having almost no clear evidence to go on.
And it predicts (on the basis of experimental studies) that they are likely to continue to be divided just as bitterly no matter how much evidence comes to light—even if it turns out, say, that an unobserved neighbor made a digital recording of the attack with his or her cell phone (or high-resolution camera).
But as I said in my last post, this conclusion doesn’t mean there’s no point talking about the case. We should be addressing the meanings that divide us on an issue like this, because they divide us on lots of things—not just the use of violence by individuals of one race on those of another, or even the use of it by the police against private citizens, but also matters as diverse as whether climate change is occurring or whether schools should vaccinate pre-adolescent girls against HPV.
This sort of division, in my view, is a barrier to our coming to democratic consensus on a wide variety of policies that promote our common welfare in ways perfectly compatible with our diverse cultural values.
The question, in my view, is how we might use the Trayvon Martin case as an occasion for a meaningful discussion about meanings in our political life.
In this post, I’ll identify how not to do it.
2. Replaying history: “shall issue,” “stand your ground,” and the culture of honor
It turns out that we have been “discussing” cultural meanings since pretty much the start of this affair. But we’ve been doing it in the idiom of culturally motivated empirical assertions about the impact of law.
Two laws, in particular—one relating to guns and the other to the use of self-defense.
Florida is one of the 38 states with so-called “shall issue” laws, which essentially mandate that any adult citizen who has not been convicted of a felony or diagnosed with a mental illness be issued a permit to carry a concealed firearm in public.
It is also one of a dozen or states that has recently enacted “stand your ground” laws, which provide that a person “who is attacked in any [public] place where he has a right to be has no duty to retreat” before resorting to deadly force to defend him- or herself from a potentially lethal assault. (Media reports miscalculate the number—apparently counting laws that existed before the recent spate of “stand your ground” enactments and also mixing in ones that relate to the use of deadly force in the home.)
George Zimmerman, the shooter in this case, was carrying a concealed handgun pursuant to a “shall issue” license. He also asserts that his fatal shooting of Martin—whom Zimmerman was tailing because he looked “suspicious”—was an act of self-defense.
Unsurprisingly, there has been a barrage of commentaries attributing violent assaults to “shall issue” and “stand your ground” laws, and a counter-barrage crediting these laws with reducing the incidence of violent crime.
These empirical arguments are specious. Indeed, they are part and parcel of a longstanding cultural division in our political life. Zealots who crave (or indeed profit from) such debate are exploiting the Trayvon Martin case to deepen that division—crowding out discussion of things that really matter.
a. The evidence. There is no persuasive empirical evidence that “shall issue” laws have any impact on the rate of violent crime.
Don’t take my word for it: that's the conclusion the National Academy of Sciences reached in an “expert consensus” report, which examined numerous empirical studies on the matter and concluded that it was simply impossible to say one way or another whether such laws increase crime or instead decrease it as a result of their effect in deterring violent predation.
The evidence on how “stand your ground” laws have affected violent-crime rates is no more conclusive. Indeed, it’s hard to conceive of how it could be.
These laws have all been enacted in the last decade. Yet the rule that a person can “stand his ground”—that he has no duty to retreat before using deadly force in self-defense—has been the majority rule among U.S. states for over a century. It was already the rule, in fact, in many of the states that have recently adopted “stand your ground” laws (e.g., Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Montana, Oklahoma, Utah, Washington, and West Virginia).
Before it enacted its “stand your ground” law, Florida apparently did make the lawful use of deadly force in self-defense conditional on a duty to avail oneself of any safe route of retreat, at least when an individual was attacked outside his or her home. But violent crime has decreased in that state over the the last decade.
Indeed, violent crime has decreased throughout the U.S. during that time. Identifying all the potential causes for this trend, and disentangling them from one another in order to determine what impact (if any) enacting or not enacting a “stand your ground” law has had on the velocity of crime abatement in any particular state, would involve overcoming all the statistical difficulties that led the National Academy of Sciences to toss its hands up in the air when it tried to measure the impact of “shall issue” laws on violent crime.
Any commentator who asserts with confidence that either “stand your ground” laws or “shall issue” laws increase or decrease crime simply doesn’t know what he or she is talking about.
b. Culture, cognition, and political opportunism. What there is persuasive empirical evidence of, however, is the biasing impact of cultural cognition on individuals’ assessments of the impact of laws like these.
Individuals with egalitarian, communitarian values—for whom the gun is a noxious symbol of patriarchy, racism, indifference to others, and hostility to reason—predictably construe the evidence as showing that lax gun control laws increase deadly violence.
In contrast, those with hierarchical and individualistic worldviews—for whom the gun is associated with positive values such as courage, self-reliance, and honor—predictably fit their perceptions of the evidence to the culturally congenial conclusion that shall issue laws decrease homicide rates.
As a result of these same dynamics, moreover, they both tend to misperceive that the weight of expert evidence is on their side.
The same cultural divisions mark reactions to the duty to retreat in self-defense laws. Indeed, the advent of the “stand your ground” movement is intimately connected to cultural conflict over guns.
As indicated, the motivation for these statutes wasn’t to change the law. On the contrary, it was to provoke culturally grounded conflict.
The biggest threat to the gun industry is not that guns will be regulated out of existence. It is that future generations of Americans, as they become progressively more removed from the cultural norms that motivate people to buy guns, will simply lose interest in owning them.
Orchestrated by the NRA, the campaign to enact “stand your ground” laws is a booster shot for those norms. By design, “stand your ground” laws radiate individualistic and hierarchical values. The enactment of them—particularly over the predictable, and predictably strident, opposition of groups associated with egalitarian and communitarian values—broadcasts the vitality of a pro-gun ethos, a signal that can be expected to inculcate the same in those who receive that signal.
c. We’ve seen this before; enough already! The cultural battle over “stand your ground” laws is actually an historical replay.
Just over a century ago, courts in the South and West adopted the “no retreat” rule. They called the “true man” doctrine, a label that recognized that a man whose character is “true” (that is, in order, or straight, like a “true beam”) appropriately values his own liberty more than the life of someone who wrongfully threatens it.
Northeastern jurists and commentators denounced this departure from the traditional “retreat to the wall” position as an expression of the “feeling which is responsible for the duel, the war, for lynching.” The echo of the Civil War reverberated through this legal debate for a period for some three decades.
Then, in one of the most brilliant demonstrations of statesmanship in the history of America jurisprudence, Justice Holmes defused this controversy by draining it of its expressive significance.
It’s futile, he reasoned in the 1921 decision of Brown v. United States, for the law to demand that someone who faces a deadly threat “pause to consider whether a reasonable man might not think it possible to fly with safety.” “Detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife."
Just like that, the “true man doctrine” became the “scared shitless man defense.” The South and the West got the rule they wanted, but only after it had been gutted of the meaning that galled the Northeast.
Everyone lost interest, and the issue went away. Gun control essentially took its place as the front of the battle over the status of honor norms in U.S. law and culture.
But then 85 years later the NRA came to the brilliant realization that it could subsidize the culture war over guns by reviving the “true man” doctrine in the form of the new, Clint-Eastwoodesque “stand your ground” laws.
Not surprisingly, the most receptive states were located in regions of the country that already had the “true man” doctrine.
But no matter: the point wasn’t to change the law; it was to agitate and inflame.
The NRA could count on agitation, of course, only if the egalitarian communitarian opponents of the honor culture—the descendents of the “true man” critics—took the bait. Which of course, they have done. They'd be out of work too without this sort of conflict.
Hey—I didn’t know him. But I think I can safely say, “You are no Justice Holmes,” to the legions of commentators now seizing on the Trayvon Martin as an occasion to raise the volume in equally tendentious and tedious “shall issue” and “stand your ground” debates.
I’d also like to tell them to just back off. Not only are you needlessly sowing division; you are destroying the prospects for a meaningful conversation of the values that—despite our cultural differences—in fact unite us.
Dan Kahan, Donald Braman, Geoffrey Cohen, John Gastil & Paul Slovic, Who Fears the HPV Vaccine, Who Doesn’t, and Why? An Experimental Study of the Mechanisms of Cultural Cognition, 34 Law Human Behav 501 (2010).
Dan M. Kahan, Donald Braman, John Gastil, Paul Slovic & C. K. Mertz, Culture and Identity-Protective Cognition: Explaining the White-Male Effect in Risk Perception, 4 J. Empirical Legal Studies 465 (2007).
It ends up w/ 3 points:
1. When Dan says that “we’ll never know what happened”, I bet he means to include a future where we find a videotape of the event. As the CCP project has found, video doesn’t reduce factual dissensus when the questions being asked are about motive or judgment. Though a video of the shooting might tell us, for example, if Zimmerman approached Martin or visa versa, it almost certainly would leave enough in doubt to permit culturally motivated inferences. That said, missing in Dan’s account is an explanation of why this particular case has caught the public’s eye when other asserted self-defense moments do not. In part I think that it’s the mystery that is driving attention here. Conflicting accounts, new witnesses, allegations of a police cover-up: these are all ammunition for new media stories, which continue to keep the event fresh in the public’s mind.
2. In that light, Dan’s admonition to “cool it” is welcome, but I wonder if it threatens to deprive critics of the police department’s handling of the case of an avenue of public awareness. That is, it might be that informing (exciting) egalitarians about the stand-your-ground law is exactly how Martin’s allies managed to initially capture public attention – which was in turn necessary to encourage florida’s authorities to step in and perform a new investigation of the facts. Without the law, this is merely a case about murky facts and police discretion. With it, it’s a national story.
3. Dan implicitly asserts that the stand your ground lawmaking was intended to provide a booster shot for gun owners. This suggests a testable hypothesis. As compared to states without such laws, but with similar pre-existing cultures of gun ownership, stand your ground states should be losing their firearm traditions more slowly. Though testing expressive effects of laws is notoriously difficult, this seems like a nice experiment that an enterprising VAP might want to take on.
When I say "never know," I don't contemplate discovery of a video. My point was that even if a video did magically appear, it would not settle things -- just as videos didn't resolve factual disputes (couldn't) in Rodney King, Scott v. Harris, all the the recent uses of force against occupy protesters, all the less recent cases (including ones in the S Ct) featuring abortion protesters, etc.
Without a video, things don't become clearer, of course. Remember that in the Goetz case there were multiple witnesses & even a video-taped confession by Goetz in which he stated that his goal was to "murder" the teens whom he shot. Still, to this day, when people read about and discuss the case, they form conflicting perceptions of "what happened." And seems pretty clear we we'll have even less to go on in the Trayvon Martin case than that.
I don't want to spoil the conclusion, but outrage at the (now removed) prosecutor's initial decision not to press charges or investigate further didn't require culturally motivated agitation. Disgust was bi-partisan, or "multi-cultural," at the outset. Now the cultural battle lines are drawn; everyone's got the memo: it's "us" vs. "them."
Interesting, but I actually don't think a test of how the "stand your ground" laws have interacted with gun ownership & culture is the right test for what was intended. People often make their best guesses about the consequences of their action, and then are proven wrong by events. The best proof is just to talk to the people involved. I don't think the NRA has really even concealed its motivation for pushing the "stand your ground" laws.