Don't Shoot Me, I'm Innocent I was not planning on weighing in on this topic of much media and public attention, until I read this AAA/HuffPo piece. Racial and ethnic conflict, nationalistic labels, perceptions of distance and of inter-racial or race-related violence are all topics that I explored rather thoroughly in my PhD thesis (titled Urban Firewalls for some of these exact reasons). What initially started out as a brief comment in response to Ashkuff's post at the OAC has evolved into something more, and I am posting it here with some duality: 1) as an anthropologist analyzing concepts of social distance, and 2) more subjectively as a citizen of the United States who has recently returned from abroad to a country where it is easy to feel like a foreigner on the wrong side of a firewall.

Race is a powerful word, yet it is in key ways little more than an arbitrary label; it's just another term wielded by those threatened by difference to put distance between the Self and the Other. For anthropologists, it's fascinating stuff. Yet I can't address it only as an anthropologist or remove all personal emotion here. I'm culture-shocked, and you should be, too. I say this as a concerned citizen: the question is not whether or not Zimmerman is guilty (he shot an unarmed person), it's what the hell are we doing (we let him have the gun in the first place)?

In somber cases like that of Trayvon Martin, it is worrying that race/ethnicity are so easily played to suit the whims of commentators and politicians obliviously clowning around in a giant election year performance. So wearing my citizen hat, I argue that race is being used here once again to draw attention away from more critical issues bubbling at intense heat right below the surface. By fixating on race, we avoid asking other questions that Americans are afraid to ask out loud ... or at least afraid to answer. I'm talking about gun control and personal (in)security and the rampant fear and distrust between Americans that causes them to not only buy, carry and use lethal weapons, but also to demand them as a basic right of all citizenry while healthcare, on the other hand, is seen as a privilege to be earned. Popular media outlets have once again shown twisted, misanthropic acceptance of the act of shooting someone, to ruminate instead on the whys and wherefores of race.

Back up past race for a moment. Why is it acceptable to talk about "standing one's ground" with "deadly force" as if it should be anything but reprehensible (let alone legal) to inscribe hatred and fear into the very geography, street by street? In the US, it makes no difference what "race" you self-ascribe to or are inadvertently shoved into, or even if you reject the concept entirely. Like the religious trying to condemn an atheist to their imaginary hell, the concept of "race" continues to stubbornly be used to categorize even those who dismiss its validity, and to determine the various levels of freedom (not nearly an absolute concept in the hands of patriots, it seems) that each category of person should be afforded or have restricted.

That's the irony of a democracy run by and for special interest groups, where civil rights are wantonly thrown to the wind, and where putting "positive" before "discrimination" is meant to cancel it out. All Americans - yes, all, like it or not - are engaged in this ongoing game of hatred and distrust using the dated and meaningless category of "race" to mask the fact that the "land of the free" is anything but.

Back to the anthropologist hat now, conceptualizing a sliding scale of nearness and distance to categorize one's social and physical environment is universal and natural. It is one of the most basic and fundamental traits of humanity: to divide up our sensory world in order to better manage it and better manage ourselves in it. Dealing with the problematic gray areas and taboo zones and semi-permeable imagined boundaries is what being human is all about. There is no "us" without "them" and vice versa. In-groups and out-groups have always been a reality for human and non-human primates alike. Yet it seemingly takes the infinite stupidity of present-day America to repackage the autonomic fight or flight response into deadly "stand your ground" legislation.

If this were happening in any other place, we anthropologists would be poking and prodding its peculiarity, unable to restrain ourselves from passing judgment or even taking action. Do we feel powerless to affect change in our own societies? In the case of the US, I feel like a majority of voices in the public sphere - social researchers included - are guilty of taking the race debate at face value. Not challenging the race paradigm is not "objective"; it's lazy and probably even negligent. So I venture here that, save the most obvious and superficial details, the critical reality of the Trayvon Martin case cannot be explained away by "race". And as long as we keep arguing that it can, this dangerous word will continue to gain currency.

... to buy bullets with.

7 comments:

Alien Prophet said...

This is a brilliant piece. It should be printed in every newspaper in the USA.

Ashkuff said...

(puts on anthropology hat)

I agree with most of what you said about race, and what you said about the Powers That Be using race to distract people from the larger issues.

I disagree about "fight or flight" being autonomic. I believe it's more like "fight and/or flight and/or freeze." I've seen plenty of humans, and other primates, do combinations of all three.

(switches off to citizen hat)

To answer your question, "what the hell are we doing (we let him have the gun in the first place)?" Simply put, we were letting him practice his constitutional rights. People can toss around all the rhetoric they want, the fact remains that the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be abridged. Anything less would be tantamount to an enforced state religion, oppressing free speech, denying women their right to vote, or any other flagrantly unconstitutional silliness.

Remember that "stand your ground" actually emphasizes the use of lethal force, which can be achieved with a heavy rock in lieu of a gun. Plenty of black men have wrongly died at the end of a rope, at the hands of angry mobs, dragged behind pickup trucks, and under baseball bats. So why must we pretend this is about guns?

Lastly, despite the media circus that's erupted over this one isolated case study, most licensed gun owners aren't vigilantes. Just as most car owners aren't drunken road-ragers.

--- Ashkuff | www.ashkuff.com | How to venture out of “armchair” scholarship and into action? One anthropologist tackles business, occultism and violence! He gets spooked and roughed up a lot.

Fran Barone said...

To answer your question, "what the hell are we doing (we let him have the gun in the first place)?" Simply put, we were letting him practice his constitutional rights. People can toss around all the rhetoric they want, the fact remains that the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be abridged. Anything less would be tantamount to an enforced state religion, oppressing free speech, denying women their right to vote, or any other flagrantly unconstitutional silliness.

This is precisely what I object to. I don't believe that there should be a constitutional right to bear arms. It is long past due that the 2nd amendment be repealed. The amendment is dated, and there is considerable dissent regarding the intentions of the framers when they added it: during a time of upheaval well before the country had even existed long enough to have an organized militia or stable police force. That's why it was bundled in with the 3rd Amendment, another remnant of history with little relevance today.

I find it morally reprehensible that Americans so vehemently defend this "right" to the grave (quite literally to the grave) based on its constitutionality, when other, much clearer and enduring constitutional truths are ignored on a daily basis. For instance, a sad mockery is made of the separation of church and state in this country. No one fights for it; but guns, yeah, we're all about guns. It's hypocrisy at its finest.

IMO, carrying a gun should never have been exalted to the same heights as universal suffrage, freedom of religion, speech or assembly. I am familiar with the facile argument that "guns don't kill people" and it's true that not all gun owners are homicidal maniacs. But people kill people with guns. This much is clear. The gun death stats for the US are off the charts compared with other nations that also allow citizens to have guns. We obviously have a problem with guns that resting on constitutionality is not going to fix.

If people didn't have guns, would every would-be shooter take a bat to someone's head or savagely beat them bloody with a rock? The fact that guns are not the only lethal weapons at our disposal is neither here nor there, and is certainly no argument for maintaining the 2nd Amendment.

ashkuff said...

Well, as a diehard constitutionalist, I can respect it if you want the ammendment repealed, and lobby to make that happen as per Article V. In the meantime, however, must we act so sirprised when lawmakers simply adhere to the constitution as it is?

As for "separation of church and state?" That actually just a figure of speech that never appears in the constitution. You're probably thinking of the closely related, but ultimately distinct, Establishment Clause.

--- Ashkuff | www.ashkuff.com | How to venture out of “armchair” scholarship and into action? One anthropologist tackles business, occultism and violence! He gets spooked and roughed up a lot.

Fran Barone said...

As a pragmatist, I think it is wiser that we approach the US constitution as a living document. It is fallible, dated and subject to interpretation. I am not a fan of extremism, nationalistic, religious or constitutional. That these are often bundled together in the US is no surprise. The constitution presents limited guidelines for the running of the state, to reduce potential abuses of power in the course of government. Amendments provide citizens with the most basic protection of freedoms. It's up to us as a nation (and a toddler of one at that) to build on it for the needs of our actual society.

ashkuff said...

The constitution is, indeed, a living document. After all, it was purposely drafted to change over time. That said, it cannot be too "dated." It was last amended hardly ten years ago!

It's true that exremism, nationalism, religion, and the constitution sometimes get bundled togther. But let's not conflate them. There's nothing inherently wrong with the later three by themselves, or even taken together. Furthermore, extremism can taint ANY value, including cosmopolitanism, secularism, and liberalism.

--- Ashkuff | www.ashkuff.com | How to venture out of “armchair” scholarship and into action? One anthropologist tackles business, occultism and violence! He gets spooked and roughed up a lot.

MTBradley said...

On the one hand there are plenty of partisans who vehemently argue that the expansion of the scope of the right to bear arms and increased numbers of legally-owned firearms leads to more violent crime. On the other you have plenty of partisans who vehemently argue that the same is a/the causal factor in the decrease in violent crime in the United States over the past two decades. While both assertions may make a lot of intuitive sense, neither is unequivocally supported by the data. That’s the conclusion reached in a survey commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences, anyway.*

*Firearms and violence: a critical review. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2004. http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=10881

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