Thursday, April 19, 2012

Gun Control - A Rebuttal

When a subject is highly controversial... one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one's audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.
-Virginia Woolf

A few posts back, Kim wrote about the Trayvon Martin case.  She compared the writer’s power to that of a loaded gun.  Her concern was media spin and the way writing can alter a public opinion.

I agree.  Our own bias creeps into our writing. 

In fact, a couple of key words can manipulate the meaning in a sentence.  A good example is the concern that the public "rushed to judgment" in the Trayvon Martin case.  Here, the word “rushed” implies that the public response has been too hasty.  And the word “judgment” leaves the impression that the reaction is unfair. 

If instead, the sentence were constructed to read, "the public responded with concern,” the implication would be one of justified anxiety rather than rash opinion.  It's subtle, but those word choices influence the reader.

Over the past few weeks, we have seen the public response to the Trayvon Martin tragedy described in different ways by different sources.  William Bennet at CNN, also described the public's response as a "rush to judgment."  But Marcus Breton of the Sacramento Bee wrote, "National outrage speaks to public doubt of Zimmerman's self-defense claim.

Though both men were writing about the same topic, the variance in their word choices gave the reader two different stories.

I worried about this after reading Kim's post.  My own story about the Trayvon Martin case would have been written using different words.  And while I kind of think we're off on a tangent by discussing this topic on this particular blog, I hope that a different perspective can be welcomed and pondered with kindness.

So, with great respect and love to Kim (without whom there would be no Swagger blog), this is my perspective and mine alone.

A Few Facts

Leaving race and ethnicity out of it, the facts of the incident have clearly raised some red flags in our country.
·      Though Zimmerman’s legal defense of his actions is self-defense, there is no proof that George Zimmerman was being threatened or sustained any injuries during his altercation with Trayvon Martin
·      Trayvon Martin was unarmed
·      Police dispatchers told the neighborhood watchman, Zimmerman, not to follow Trayvon Martin - to wait for the police, but Mr. Zimmerman continued to follow Martin
·      Trayvon Martin was shot and killed

But the sad fact is, we rarely leave race and ethnicity out of it.

On the Meanings of the Words Race and Ethnicity

Understanding the difference between the terms "race" and "ethnicity" might shed a bit of light here:

Ethnicity is a term that indicates a country of origin (i.e. Italian or Mexican) or religion (i.e. Jewish or Muslim.)

Race refers to physical features that society perceives as “black” or “white.”

So, in this case, society looks at Trayvon Martin and sees him as a "black" kid because of his physical features, or society's perception of his appearance.

We are also hearing a lot about the controversy of perception based on appearance, and in some cases, seeing examples of biased images in addition to predisposed text.  In the greater media, this is being referred to as the "hoodie" dispute, as some have maintained that wearing a hoodie implies something inherently threatening.

I wear a hoodie (my husband's old, ratty, caked-with-breakfast, dark blue one) every morning when I drive my kids to school.  It's comfy and warm.  I'm so attached to it that I have a name for it.  I call it my "wubby."  Nobody looks afraid or crosses the street.  So why am I non-threatening in a hoodie but a young "black" man isn't?

Jon Stewart made this tongue in cheek commentary on the hoodie issue.

George Zimmerman's appearance has also been closely examined but in an almost opposite way.

As if all of our assumptions of guilt and innocence are based on appearance or "race." 

Maybe they are.

Which brings us to George Zimmerman's perceived race.  He's harder to slip into a racial category than Trayvon Martin simply by breaking down his features.  Because of his caramel skin tone and dark hair we might think, Mexican?  But he could be Indian, Middle Eastern, Italian or even black.  On voter registration forms Zimmerman described himself as Hispanic but his father described himself as white while is mother lists her country of origin as Peru.

And his last name, Zimmerman, well that sounds kind of Jewish. 

And while Jews in this country were certainly not considered racially "white" a hundred years ago, most Jews are now perceived as part of the white “race.”  This is true of other ethnic groups as well – Polish, Italians, Irish – all of these ethnic groups were once viewed with the kind of hairy eyeball with which we see Mexicans today. 

Here’s another wrench in the race debate: Most “black” people in America often have enough biological indicators to prove they are made up of as much European (white) descent as African (black) descent.  So if the genetic make up of a person is 50% African and 50% European, or like Zimmerman 50% "white" and 50% Peruvian, what race are they?  Well, in America, we all seem to agree on the answer to this question. 

Just look at our “black” president.

Yes, there’s the rub. Race is a social construct.  It’s fabricated.  We make race up as we go, based on individual and collective opinion of a person’s appearance.

There is no such thing as race.

But that doesn’t mean that there is no such thing as racism. 

On Racism

Many people today believe that we live in a post racist society.  But it’s hard to deny that racism seeps into the way we think, act and write when we look at statistics.

The majority of Americans may not know that those perceived as white get better jobs, political positions and are paid more, aren't aware of the way the media portrays stereotypes based on race, ethnicity, gender and social class, or are privy to the glaring statistics in the achievement gap.

And sometimes, we don't recognize it in writing.

For example, in the sentence, “most African Americans are shot by other African Americans.  But that little factoid hasn’t gotten much attention,” there may be an unwitting racist implication.  According to Mirriam-Webster, a factoid is 1. an invented fact believed to be true because it appears in print. or 2. a briefly stated and usually trivial fact. 

But black on black crime isn’t an invented fact nor is it trivial. 

It also doesn’t exist because there is inherently something wrong with men who have certain physical features (race).  And here, it's important to note that murder rates between white men are also higher than murder across racial lines.

In fact, research shows that crime rates in general have a closer relationship to social class, developmental experiences, age and gender than race. 

Back to Writing

It is important to write about this.  But in our text, each word choice is a potentially biased decision with the power to sway the reader to whatever the true opinion of the writer might be. 

Kim's bringing the Trayvon Martin case to our blog posed a challenge for me because our views were diverse and because the topic is in the realm of my profession as a humanities professor.  I was saddened to see that even here in our ostensibly safe little writing blog, the pain that these thorny discussions of race can cause are ever present.

In the end, the only solution is to allow the debate, to be respectful but to carefully question each others assumptions, and to be mindful about the writing we read and the writing we produce. 

Juliet Bond


  1. Brilliant response to the call posed by Kim's article on the Martin case and "loaded" words. The title literally connects the dots, Bravo!

    The United States has a socially constructed racial system, with rules that are occasionally less than clear-cut hence most people experience difficulty when the criteria conflict however, first and foremost the population is programmed to make judgements about each other based on bodily appearance. Appearance, we are taught through countless images and story lines, is the generally (but not always as with Zimmerman) reliable visible manifestation of a deeper essence that is taken to inhere in ancestry according to the socially constructed code. Symbolically we have been hit in the head with the oppositional constructs that "white is the light" and "black is the dark".

    Traditional racial theory sees culture as an emanation of "biological race", so that one's "real" biological self is always immanent within the borrowed clothes of the alien culture. Juliet does well in inviting our critical thinking and decodes this programming urging us not to reload our guns with traditional racist social constructs.

  2. Thank you for this beautifully written post, Juliet. A lot of things that needed saying. This is a difficult subject to write about even-handedly and this piece fills in the holes without being divisive.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Thanks, Robin. Your opinion means so much to me. You are a fabulous writer yourself, not to mention a beautiful person.

  3. A powerful piece! The sad truth is that race is still the scariest topic for Americans to talk about, so it's courageous of you to tackle this response in a public forum and among friends about whom you care deeply. Though I know you would have preferred this topic stay out of the blog, your piece is a thought-provoking response to and continuation of the topic that Kim introduced. For better or worse, we can't build firewalls between thorny issues and our lives any more than we can build them between our prejudices and the words we choose when we write. The best thing we can hope to do is not shy away from looking at them with courage, honesty, and compassion, which is what you have done here.

    1. Thank you, my love.

  4. Brillian, powerful, beautifully written? Are you kidding me? Juliet was anything but respectful towards Kim and her blathering is powerful and beautiful? I'm not a writer; I just read whats before me and Kim's was insightful and thought provoking; Juliet's was professorial BS. Just one readers insight.

  5. We can tell that anon above is not a writer nor a credible source to judge the validity of either a professorial or critical thinking genre review. Ad-homenem attacks such as the above do not expand the discussion nor do they produce knowledge.

  6. To the Anonymous comment above: I urge you to reconsider your comment. What you call "professorial B.S." is crucial to public discourse. We need more research-based arguments in our conversation, not less. Too often we base our opinions about topics on nothing more than how we feel about said topic. What drives our feelings on a topic range from our past experiences and whatever the spin the media wants to create. Rarely do we engage in critical thinking with actual research or data. I applaud Juliet's use of research in making her argument. To bash it in your comments only fuels negativity. What have you got to actually ADD to the dialogue?

    1. Thank you, Tina. I appreciate your kindness and the reminder that the mean spirited stuff doesn't get us anywhere.

  7. Hmmm, Dr. June simply confirms my statement. I can almost see you looking down your nose at me as I write as simply a reader. I don't have anything to add, I simply agree with the previous article written by Kim. Thanks

  8. Here's something else for all of you to consider. As I indicated in my initial post, I believe the way the media portrayed Trayvon and George initially went a long way towards fueling this national emotional conversation. The big question is: what are we going to do about it? Florida's Stand Your Ground gun law protects people in George's situation. Initially George wasn't charged because police believed there wasn't enough evidence he intended to kill anyone, acted maliciously, or wasn't acting in self-defense. The public outcry finally led to a charge, but that's a long way from a conviction. At this point, George needed to be charged so we can bring this case to trial and get the facts out there.

    The question is, if he's convicted, will that make the Trayvon supporters happy? Do they feel this sort of thing won't happen again? And what will the people do who feel George Zimmerman was wronged? And if George is acquitted, besides the inevitable riot, will gun rights advocates feel vindicated? Are we back to name calling and symbolic gestures? Or worse?

    What's the plan to move this country forward, not backward?

    Wouldn't it be nice if this emotional maelstrom resulted in something constructive? When the power of words is used only to tear down, it harms us all.

    1. You hit the nail on the head Kim.
      This is just the beginning of exceptional agenda the anti gun mob are piggybacking on Trayvon to move theirs forward...There will be no winner, there will definitely be rioting if a not guilty verdict is handed down, and I'm not sure how the Hispanic community will react if a guilty verdict comes down. Whatever happens the outcome just like the facts in this case will not be known till its all over and done with...

      I do know this though, if you take the the time to follow this link and read about this Chicago school, where respect is demanded and school uniforms have made a re-emergence it'll warm your heart what can be achieved with the correct discipline. I heard the dean of the school interviewed a couple of weeks ago and it brings tears to your eyes, how much they have achieved.

      This is what happens when children are given strong role models and are set reachable goals. I especially liked the school uniform connections,for those that dont want to click the link, this is a charter school for black boys a studen body of over 400 and they just graduated their 3rd straight class of 100% with a 100% matriculation rate...

      Kim I loved your original post and Juliet you made some good points that I think should have been posted in a more timely manner and as a reply rather than an individual post. I just spent my last two cents on this subject...

      Love Hugs and Warm Fuzzy Koala Bears to all.

    2. Hi Jon, thanks for the link. It's interesting and inspirational. We just had a huge debate in my town when a referendum was proposed for a school in our fifth ward. The fifth ward in Evanston are primarily African American. Currently, our fifth ward kids are divided up and bussed to various schools throughout Evanston in order to provide diversity to the other schools. This was a well-intentioned effort, started in the 1960's, in order to segregate the community schools. However, as a result, these kids have lost the opportunity to enjoy the benefits of a community school. The reason I mention this is that there are many studies that show that schools like the one in your link - ones who provide a focus on one group in a concerted, supportive and funded way with great teachers and mentors that the kids can relate to (you can't be what you can't see) - do a much better job of producing confident kids.

      I actually hadn't thought of using the comments space for a rebuttal. I thought your recommendation to comment meant as a post, my bad :) In hindsight, posting in the comments might have been an adequate and less spotlighted way to do it. And as to timeliness, I too wish this had been published when it was first composed and scheduled on April 7th, but that wasn't my call. In the end, it was softened by group input so maybe it was better this way.

  9. I don't think we can pretend that race isn't an emotionally loaded issue. It's one of those topics that we would much rather ignore or just "let it pass." As a country we do a terrible job of talking about race and as a result we see the media making blatent racist remarks--anyone ever watch Fox news? How often do we say anything? I really appreciated Juliet's post because it stayed true to her beliefs and it provoked us all to think about a subject that is often very painful to think about or even admit that maybe we might be a little racist.

    1. Hi Nancy, thanks for your comment. I so agree, race is an issue people have a hard time navigating regardless of their skin color. Those of us who have benefited from being viewed as "white" sometimes forget or haven't yet realized how lucky we are to live without suspicion or judgement based on our race or ethnicity.

  10. Why do people have to constantly refer to FOX news as if that strengthens their argument! have you ever watched CNN, MSNBC, ever listened to AIR America (before it went belly up due to listener apathy from the left) let alone HBO and its abhorrent support of Bill Maher (Oh but he's a comedian, what a load of crap! he's a disgusting mouthpiece for the far left and he gets away with far more than any other politico that I know) the left spews as much if not more venom, as they accuse the right of but it appears that if they continue to sprout off about it louder and with more vile hatred then it magically becomes truth.

    The George Zimmerman Travon Martin incident is terrible it's shameful that a young man died that night, at the hands of a white/hispanic (What another load of crap!) and it stinks that the likes of Jesse Jackson, Barack Obama, The Black Panthers and the Rev. Al Sharpton used it as political stepping stones, all we need now is Gloria Allred to complete the circus!

    This blog was created as a place for writers with a belief that our work would foster readership and support for any writer and I am saddened that its become a place for mean spirited discourse on a subject that none of us know any of the true facts about.

    I'm a white conservative, I watch Fox News, I have handguns rifles and shotguns along with ammunition in my house and both myself and my wife will use them if needed and I am not a Racist, I'm a writer and I am about heartbroken that I am very close to being done with this blog.

    Oh and as far as the Anon poster, grow a pair mate, if you're willing to write in this blog then at least have the courage to put your name to it!

  11. Thanks Jon, I appreciate your point of view even when we disagree and I hope you aren't too exhausted by the discussion. Like I said in the post, I wish it hadn't come up but it did.

    And yeah, anonymous, feel free to weigh in but sign your name :)

  12. I stumbled on this blog when I was researching the Trayvon Martin case. I agree with above post - it is really hard to talk about race, and it's doubly hard to be aware of our own words and biases when we talk. It's refreshing to see people talking about this issue with respect.

    1. Thank you, I'm glad you found us.

  13. A thoughtfully-written and thought-provoking piece. Nicely done.

  14. "In the end, the only solution is to allow the debate, to be respectful but to carefully question each others assumptions, and to be mindful about the writing we read and the writing we produce."

    I think that sums it up perfectly, and it seems to be exactly what this post accomplished. Well done.

    1. Thanks for weighing in, Joe!

  15. Thought provoking, intelligent, sensitive discourse; willingness to listen and think and respond carefully - these are the things we need to evolve and thrive. You've done a thorough, thoughtful job in your response, paying respect in every sense to both the matter at hand, the original post and author and, so importantly, your own belief system. Well done.

    1. That's very kind Jenny. Thanks for reading!

  16. I know I am late to this discussion but I still wanted a chance to comment in support of Juliet's work. I am grateful to anyone who has the courage to say, "wait a minute, let's really look at how our words can indicate a deeper issue." Sure, we can all blame the misguided media, our racist society, and ask others what they will do about it. Juliet has, instead, asked us to do something much, much more difficult - to look deep within ourselves and examine where we might actually perpetuate racist ideas through our words and unconscious behavior. It challenges us to make change from within. That is what a gifted writer brings to the table and I am thankful to writers like Juliet for this gentle nudge...

  17. Thanks, Leslie. What an enormous compliment!