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.