I recently had quite an exchange with, among others, a regular contributor to this blog, Herb Van Fleet. It began with my praising President Obama’s speech at Moorehouse College and proceeded to a discussion about the Trayvon Martin case. I suggest anyone interested in human perception, in how one person sees the world as compared to another, follow that very interesting (and ongoing) exchange. Make your own judgment as to who is being led by a false perception of events surrounding the Martin-Zimmerman case, and who is not.
All of this, however, got me thinking, as I came across some seemingly unrelated articles this weekend.
Look at this photo:
Now, look at this photo:
Finally, take a look at this, much more famous, picture:
All of us, for one reason or another, look at these pictures a little differently. We may think they tell us something important, possibly something essential, about the person pictured.
Let’s start with Obama. What does that photo tell us about him? Well, for some folks, it tells us a lot:
This “story” was promoted, as Charles Pierce points out, by The Washington Examiner, which Pierce describes as “a minor satellite in the wing-nut universe.” But even so, the story is advanced not because it is true, but because it conforms to the way some small, but significant, percentage of the population sees our president. It’s what they see when they see that photo above, or some other similar photo, or, for some smaller number of people, any photo of him at all.
Now, let’s go back to the top photo. That’s Trayvon Martin, purchasing some items at a convenience store on February 26, 2012, just before he was to encounter George Zimmerman, who shot him dead a little later that night in Sanford, Florida.
Zimmerman, who lived in the gated community in which he first spotted Martin and who was apparently a neighborhood watch coordinator of some sort, didn’t know the 17-year-old kid. Thus, he didn’t know the kid was headed toward the home of his father’s fiancée, who also lived in the gated community.
In order to properly follow the upcoming trial involving George Zimmerman, it’s necessary to understand and not forget this essential fact: Zimmerman didn’t know a single thing about Trayvon Martin. Not a single thing. But what he did know is what he saw when he saw Trayvon Martin: “a suspicious guy” who “looks like he is up to no good or he is on drugs or something.” That’s what he first told police on the night he shot Martin.
Evolution endowed us with the ability to quickly identify things that could hurt us, like spiders and snakes. But not all spiders and snakes are out to get us. Much of that fear is irrational and a waste of mental energy. But having the ability to quickly perceive such danger obviously helped us survive and become the misjudging creatures we often are.
We are also conditioned to interpret the things we see. Sometimes nurturing or experience teaches us to see things that may or may not be there in any particular future case. Some people look at that picture of Trayvon Martin at a convenience store and they see a kid about to do something bad. Others look at him and say it’s just another kid in a hoodie buying some Skittles and iced tea.
Perception matters, as a dead Trayvon Martina and a live George Zimmerman, who is on trial for second-degree murder, demonstrates. And it should matter to all of us that the way we perceive things on first glance, the initial judgments we make, have a high probability of error. Further, it should matter to us that part of our perception is influenced by our culture, by the way we were raised in this culture and by the way we have been treated within it. Thus, it helps us to become better thinkers, better people, if we remember these facts about ourselves and, just as important, about others.
Let’s now move to the second photo above. The one where the guy is posing before some empty boxes. Provided you haven’t seen this photo before, what do you see? What is it the image conjures up in your mind? What conclusions could you, would you, draw from this shot? Is he just a kid acting silly? Some kind of street thug? What?
It turns out, of course, that the kid in the photo (which he Tweeted) was a military brat who was born in Okinawa, Japan. He graduated from High School a semester early and graduated from college in three years, with a bachelors degree in political science and a 3.67 GPA. And he did all that, and more, while playing football for the Baylor University Bears in Waco, Texas. Oh, yeah, he won a Heisman Trophy and now is the talk of the town in Washington, D.C., as the much-loved quarterback of the Washington Redskins. The team signed him to a $21.1 million dollar four-year deal.
But I’ll bet, unless you knew who Robert Lee Griffin III was, you couldn’t have looked at the photo above and guessed one single thing on his thus-far impressive résumé of life. RG3, as he is now called, tweeted that photo in order to, as ESPN put it, show “thanks” to the fans who, because they adore him, bought many items on his and his soon-to-be-wife’s wedding registry.
Go back and look at that photo of RG3 again. And remember that, even though Rush Limbaugh thinks he can spot an angry liberal by just looking, none of us is well-equipped to make serious judgments upon first glance, or on the basis of a brief acquaintance with the facts.
Sure, there are times when a quick analysis is all you have to go on. It’s often better to let fear rule when it comes to spiders and snakes than make a lethal mistake, for instance. Modern life, though, is much different from the lives our ancient ancestors lived. We have the time to step back and take a more objective look, as we can in the case of President Obama and RG3. We have the time to examine our perceptions, to see why we are seeing what we see when we see it.
If George Zimmerman had done that on February 26, 2012, if he had taken a little more time to think about what he was actually seeing, if he had let the police do their jobs, he wouldn’t be awaiting trial in a Florida courtroom, worrying about going to prison.
And Trayvon Martin, whatever his faults were or weren’t as a 17-year-old kid, would still be alive.