Cultural Cognition and Trayvon Martin

April 6th, 2012

I have tried not to blog about this situation because, well, frankly I do not know enough of what happened. The issue just seems so fraught with competing claims of what happened. Dan Kahan brings some sense to this controversy:

The Travyvon Martin case, polls unsurprisingly reveal, divides people along cultural lines.

In this sense, it is very much like a host of other high-profile types of cases: public altercations leading to a mixed-race killing (think Bernard Goetz and Howard Beach); the slaying (or mutilation; think Lorena Bobbitt) of sleeping men by female partners who allege chronic abuse; the prosecutions (William Kennedy Smith)—or not (Duke lacrosse)—of men alleged to have disregarded protestations of nonconsent to sexual intercourse; forceful arrests of political protestors (Occupy Wall StreetOperation Rescue) pepper sprayed by police—or of fleeing drivers whose bodies are broken by the impact of their crashing cars or the fusillade of baton blows of their pursuers.

CCP has conducted experimental studies of cases like these. What we have found, in all of these contexts, is that people unconsciously form perceptions of fact that reflect their stance on the cultural meanings the cases convey.

Those committed to norms of honor and self-reliance, on the one hand, and those who value equality and collective concern, on the other; those who believe women warrant esteem for mastery of traditionally female domestic roles and those who believe women as well as men should be conferred status for success in civil society; those who place a premium on respect for authority and those who apprehend the abuse of it as a paramount evil—see different things in these types of cases, even when they are forming their perceptions on the basis of the same evidence.


Barely detectable in the cacophony are a few lonely voices cautioning us not to jump to conclusions; that we don’t really know enough about what happened at this point to form such strong opinions.

But the truth is, we’ll neverknow what happened, because we—the members of our pluralistic society—have radically different understandings of what a case like this means.

The questions are whether it makes sense to about that, and if so, what should we saying?

Update: Part 2 from Kahan is here.

George Zimmerman, the shooter in this case, was carrying a concealed handgun pursuant to a “shall issue” license. He also asserts that his fatal shooting of Martin—whom Zimmerman was tailing because he looked “suspicious”—was an act of self-defense.

Unsurprisingly, there has been a barrage of commentaries attributing violent assaults to “shall issue” and “stand your ground” laws, and a counter-barrage crediting these laws with reducing the incidence of violent crime.

These empirical arguments are specious. Indeed, they are part and parcel of a longstanding cultural division in our political life. Zealots who crave (or indeed profit from) such debate are exploiting theTrayvon Martin case to deepen that division—crowding out discussion of things that really matter.

Dave Hoffman has commentary here:

In that light, Dan’s admonition to “cool it” is welcome, but I wonder if it threatens to deprive critics of the police department’s handling of the case of an avenue of public awareness.  That is, it might be that informing (exciting) egalitarians about the stand-your-ground law is exactly how Martin’s allies managed to initially capture public attention – which was in turn necessary to encourage florida’s authorities to step in and perform a new investigation of the facts.  Without the law, this is merely a case about murky facts and police discretion.  With it, it’s a national story.