The George Zimmerman In All Of Us

By Jamie Neben

Only God and George Zimmerman know what actually happened that rainy night in Florida when 17 year old hoodie-wearing Trayvon Martin began walking through Zimmerman’s gated community.   Sure, we understand the basic sequence of events without all of the finer details.   We’re aware of the 911 call, the confrontation and ensuing fight, and the bullet Zimmerman fired into Martin’s chest that ended the young man’s life.  However, we don’t know what Zimmerman thought in his mind and felt in his heart as he initially caught sight of the teenager and then got out of his car.  But one thing is crystal clear:  he made a value judgment.

Zimmerman did not realize Martin was simply returning home from the store.  By his own admission, he saw somebody wandering aimlessly in the rain and figured the person must be on drugs and generally up to no good.  He categorized him as a punk, just like all the others that always get away.  We can debate whether his actions were overzealous, racially motivated, and perhaps criminal.  But the initial judgment is what ultimately led to everything that followed it.

In fairness, we cannot put all the blame squarely on George Zimmerman without first looking at ourselves.   After all, every one of us makes value judgments, and we make them several times a day.

Whenever we make a value judgment, we are essentially judging a book by its cover based on our perception and past experience.  This is especially true when we are introduced to somebody for the first time, which is why first impressions are so critical.  We usually size a person up and make assumptions based on their appearance, demeanor, and communication skills.  A well-dressed, well-spoken individual is more likely to be perceived as having a higher intelligence level and socio-economic status than the sloppy one who talks slow.  Of course, our assessment might be right on the money a healthy number of times.  We can just as easily be wrong.  How often do we find ourselves changing our opinion about someone once we get to know them better?

This aspect of human nature is hardly a new phenomenon.  Indeed, we have been judging each other since nearly the dawn of creation, as recounted in the Book of Genesis.  But thanks in large part to various media platforms throughout the ages, we have been conditioned to form instant opinions about everything we see and hear.  It’s no wonder why we are experts at judging without hesitation, and in such negative ways.  Just in the last century, radio, television, and the internet have provided an almost infinite number of available outlets where berating people is the main purpose.  Daytime programs like The Jerry Springer Show and Judge Judy, and so-called reality shows like The Bachelor, seemingly exist only to manipulate us into feeling superior to the people we’re watching.  We are inundated with images and commentary from every direction to illustrate what’s sexy—and what’s not.   Worst of all, race and gender are still used in many instances to determine someone’s value.

But this extends well beyond direct human interaction.  We also tend to draw conclusions about people due to how they choose to represent themselves.  For instance, the type of vehicle somebody owns, its condition, and the presence of bumper stickers (and what’s on them) might suggest a driver’s personality type.  A political sign in someone’s front lawn perhaps gives us a feeling about the homeowners depending on our own political views.  The mere mention of a person’s job title might elicit a reaction too, as teachers and firefighters, for example, are generally looked upon more favorably than lawyers and tax collectors.  Fashion choices, music tastes, church affiliations, and many other factors inform us rightly or otherwise about one another.

Obviously, we cannot prevent a thought from entering our minds that cause us to make judgments.  But we can be conscious that it’s happening and afford ourselves the opportunity to either accept it or question the basis on which it’s formed until we have enough information to make an a more educated decision.   While our hasty perspectives may not always come with life and death consequences like in Zimmerman’s case, we can at least give our fellow humans the benefit of the doubt when we are unsure.

The result might be a very pleasant surprise, a lot like the joy of discovering an amazing book that had an unpromising cover.

2 thoughts on “The George Zimmerman In All Of Us

  1. I agree with you on the broad scope of first impressions. I have read that our judgment of others happens within the first 30 seconds or minute. That is a terrible way to summarize a stranger’s entire life or experiences with in it. It may hinge on a smile, handshake or comment.
    In getting to know someone better, personal communication skills are very important. This can be as formal as saying “How do you do.” ,or, as informal as “What’s happenin’?” Many of us have the manners to introduce ourselves or smile at someone or complement them on their attire, like “nice hat”, as we form our first opinion. In other cases, our assessments might come within a group setting as we discuss our viewpoints and enter into diplomatic conversations. Sometimes, it’s within the work setting as new workers, residents or supervisors get to know us better and we get a beat on them.
    So, within the context of manners and judgmental attitudes, I would submit that a shout out to the victim asking him if he could be helped while walking along might have been all it took to prevent the tragedy. He could have commented on the rain if he were close enough to hear. That said, the teenager could have yelled “Hello”. The judgment calls on both sides were made immediately from across a grassy knoll, walking down a sidewalk or from the truck. One has to wonder what was said to provoke the young man to hit the other in the nose before knowing the status of that person. As stated, one will never know the finer details. And, look at the attire of Trayvon Martin? A hoodie. We’ve been wearing “hooded sweatshirts” for years. Many of us have them and wear them. So, how come it is a garment of possible criminal intent all of a sudden? If that were the case, we might think of giving ours away in case someone thinks that of us if we wear one.
    In many instances, after we’ve gotten to know someone better, our attitudes toward that person do change. There might be an agreement on music genres or movies or writing style that make us feel more comfortable with the other person. Possibly, the victim and the neighborhood watch guy could have talked about the All Star game if they’d perceived each other from a new perspective.
    I will add that we have to watch how we internalize the judgments we make from outside influences like cable news, certain magazines and even church officials. We can go down an unfortunate path of cynicism and biases that infiltrate our own thoughts on common matters.
    In the end, my thought is that a simple greeting from both parties might have been the solution for learning why the teen-ager was there. he was talking on the phone with a friend while going back to his residence after buying snacks from the store. Period. The rest of the story would not have been written as it was. In this case, the “book” didn’t have a happy ending. One thing was lacking: manners.

  2. Lynne –

    Thank you for the very insightful and interesting comments. There are some saintly people in this world for sure, and certainly a lot of normal good people, but a lot of us can always improve our manners and open-mindedness. But it gets tougher to change the older we get, that’s why it’s better to learn and practice it as early as possible. That’s not to say we should foolishly trust everybody, or not use caution when need be. Just don’t assume people are automatically bad from the get-go.

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