Part 3—An ancient tribal prerogative: Are we able, as a people, to conduct a national discourse?
Especially in a large, sprawling nation, this can be a difficult task. In the age of tribal division on cable, the Zimmerman trial provides a case study in the depth of this problem.
But no! As a people, we will not be able to conduct a discourse if we approach the world in the way one pundit described Monday night.
The pundit in question was James Peterson, an associate professor at Lehigh and an MSNBC contributor (employee). He discussed the Zimmerman trial on Monday’s Chris Hayes program.
Unlike some people we see on cable, Peterson has always struck us as decent and completely sincere. But on Monday evening, he gave perfect expression to the tribal imperative.
Defense attorney Karen Desoto explained that the prosecution might have to settle for a manslaughter charge against Zimmerman, rather than the murder charge they have been pursuing. In his reaction, Peterson captured the way a tribalized people can descend into a version of Babel.
To watch the full segment, click this:
PETERSON (7/8/13): I think it’s awful we have to settle for [a manslaughter charge] ultimately, because the court of public opinion sees this case. They see that a kid went to a store to buy Skittles and iced tea, to walk back home to his father’s home, and didn’t make it back. And we don’t see anything else beyond that.Peterson has always struck us as completely sincere. But in that statement, he captures the process by which a nation, anywhere in the world, can be transformed into a group of uncomprehending tribes.
Let’s note three parts of what Peterson said and/or seemed to imply:
Only one viewpoint exists: First, Peterson seems to assume that he is speaking for the entire public. “The court of public opinion sees this case,” he says, seeming to assume that everyone in the public sees it the way he does.
He goes on to described what the court of public opinion “sees.” He doesn’t acknowledge a basic fact: Various members of the public will be inclined to “see” this case in different ways.
Picking and choosing his facts: As he continues, Peterson describes the way “the court of public opinion sees this case.” Here is his capsule account of what the public sees:
“They see that a kid went to a store to buy Skittles and iced tea, to walk back home to his father’s home, and didn’t make it back.”
If we accept Trayvon Martin as a “kid,” all those statements are accurate. Trayvon Martin did go to a store where he bought Skittles and iced tea. He was walking back to his father’s home. He didn’t make it back.
All those statements are accurate. But as Peterson describes the case, many other facts are dropped from his account. Whatever a person may think about the merits of the prosecutor’s charges, Peterson has told the story in a highly selective way. Below, we’ll watch Piers Morgan do the same thing.
The tribal coup de grace: As that brief passage ends, Peterson applies the tribal coup de grace. Having eliminated many facts from his account of what happened, Peterson asserts the eternal prerogative of the tribe:
“We don’t see anything else beyond that,” he remarkably says.
In that statement, Peterson describes the way tribes have gone to war with The Other since we humans first slithered out of the swamp. If a dispute of some kind arises, each tribe defines its own set of facts and declares its right to ignore all else. If various tribes behave that way, it becomes impossible to conduct a sensible discourse or to reach some sort of compromise.
Peterson has always struck us as a good, decent person. But that was a remarkable statement of the tribal prerogative, a prerogative which has been declared all over the world since the dawn of time.
The tribe will listen to nothing except the facts it prefers! Under terms of this prerogative, the tribe will tell the story in its preferred way. And the tribe will refuse to “see anything else beyond that!”
That way lies bedlam! But many of our daft, unintelligent TV stars have been acting on that prerogative when they discuss the Zimmerman trial. One of the emptiest heads on TV belongs to CNN’s Piers Morgan. Here he is, on Monday night, describing the case in a very limited way:
MORGAN (7/8/13): I mean, here's my sense of what a lot of people think, which is that, in the end, an unarmed 17-year-old teenager has been killed. And the idea that the person that did that is able just to walk free, an innocent man guilty of nothing, doesn't seem right to them.In that statement, Morgan was describing “what a lot of people think.” Below, we’ll see that Morgan is one of those people.
Nothing Morgan says in that passage is factually false. It’s true that “in the end, an unarmed 17-year-old teenager [was] killed.”
But note the highly selective way Morgan has sifted the facts of this case. That description would fit a case in which a sniper sat in a tree and waited for an unarmed teenager to walk by. And if we accept the logic implied by that passage, a shooter has to go to prison any time an unarmed teenager ends up getting killed.
In the world Morgan describes, there could be no claim of self-defense, no matter what the teenager in question did. Nothing that unarmed teenager did could lead to the finding that the shooting was justified.
In that passage, Morgan told the story of Martin’s killing in a highly selective way. A bit later, he did the same thing. This time, he stated his own view of the case—and he made a very basic factual error.
This man is paid millions of dollars per year. He is begging for someone to be sent to prison for many years. But he is too lazy, too irresponsible to get even his basic facts right:
MORGAN (7/8/13): George Zimmerman ignored advice, got out of his vehicle, said, you know, “f-ing punks, A-holes getting away with it,” marched away, we don't know what happened next. But at the end, the idea there is no punishment for the fact that that expense of actions leads to him shooting an unarmed teenager dead, seems to me pretty ridiculous.It seems that Morgan still believes that Zimmerman was told not to get out of car. By all accounts, the exchange in question came later. Zimmerman was already out of his car, following Martin on foot.
(Zimmerman says he began to walk back to his car at that point.)
Put aside the journalistic laziness, the moral squalor, when a person in Morgan’s position persists in misstating such facts. Instead, note again the way he collapses the basic facts of the case:
In that recitation of the facts, Zimmerman “shot an unarmed teenager dead.” That is an accurate statement.
But Morgan’s account completely omits a wide range of other facts, claims and evidence. This is the process Peterson described. Morgan tells a story one particular way, then “doesn’t see anything else beyond that.”
Last night, Morgan was at it again. Morgan is a disaster:
MORGAN (7/9/13): Here's the point really, is that you can have all this evidence that says, “Look, it looks like Trayvon Martin was on top, et cetera, et cetera.” But in the end, is it right, do you think—and I asked this question last night—that George Zimmerman should be acquitted, allowed to walk free, given that we now know he shot an unarmed teenager? Because that's what it comes down to.Too funny! “You can have all this evidence,” Morgan says. Morgan himself doesn’t care!
As Alex Pareene often notes, Morgan is a very dumb person. In that speech, he once again enacted the process Peterson described:
In Morgan’s simplified recitation, we “now know” that Zimmerman “shot an unarmed teenager.” (Now?) And, inside Morgan’s very weak mind, “that's what it comes down to.”
In that recitation, Morgan eliminates a gigantic range of other relevant facts. But that’s what Peterson did the night before, when he seemed to think that he was speaking for the public:
"I think it’s awful we have to settle for [a manslaughter charge] ultimately, because the court of public opinion sees this case. They see that a kid went to a store to buy Skittles and iced tea, to walk back home to his father’s home and didn’t make it back. And we don’t see anything else beyond that."
Peterson “doesn’t see anything else beyond” the Skittles. This is the age-old, horrendous problem with the tribal mind.
All through the annals of time, the tribalistic human mind has gifted the world with death and destruction as groups insist on the right to “see” and describe events in their own preferred way. They will recite the facts they prefer—and they “don’t see (or mention) anything else beyond that.”
As the Zimmerman trial proceeds, the corrupted nature of cable news gives us the chance, every night, to see this gruesome process unfold. Given such a tribal arrangement, are we able, as a people, to conduct a national discourse?
It’s impossible to conduct a discourse if different groups insist on the right to reinvent the world their own way. Just look around: As corporate cable “news” explodes, that’s the world you live in.
Tomorrow: Do major pundits understand the basics of our legal system?
Friday: The Times explains