(c) Alex Furman

Life is not a Team Sport 

Some thoughts in the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial

Humans are hardwired to think in terms of us-vs-them. We do this everywhere we go. We form cliques. We stereotype those who are different. We all do it, no matter how hard we try not to. It’s probably my least favorite thing about human nature.

In the post-Holocaust era, as the Western world was reeling in shock, there was a flurry of activity aimed at figuring out what the fuck happened. How was it even possible that large chunks of the population in presumably enlightened and technologically advanced countries (and no, it wasn't just Germany) were complicit, in some form or another, in the systematic murder of millions upon millions of people who did nothing to harm them in any way? It didn't seem to make any sense. Now we know much more about human nature, and the story ain't pretty. We've all (well, most of us anyways) read about the Stanford Prison Experiment. There are many others, too many to list.

Group dynamics are scary. It’s way the hell beyond the scope of this little blog-post to go through all of them, better men than I have done this on multiple occasions, but here’s a short list to give you a flavor:

~ we think that members of the outgroup are much more similar than they really are. They all look alike and they all think alike.

~ we like to attribute positive character traits to members of our group.

~ we like to denigrate members of the outgroup, to attribute negative character traits to them.

~ in-groups tend to “radicalize” over time, due to a mixture of confirmation bias and something I've always referred to as “intellectual inbreeding”, that effectively isolates members of the group from outside sources of information.

I could go on and on.

This phenomenon is ultimately responsible for, or at least contributes to some of the greatest evils in human history. It is what made the Holocaust possible. It is the reason by same-sex couples are still unable to marry in most of the world. It’s the reason I grew up intimately aware of the fact that I have a Jewish last-name. I still have some scars to show for that.

All in all, whenever there’s an “us-vs-them” situation, people turn stupid. And I don't mean cute-stupid or even harmless-stupid, the stupid you see here is outright nasty. What’s worse, smart people are just as susceptible. It’s scary and it’s all around us. My liberal friends will often say things that imply that conservatives, any types of conservatives, are either dumb or morally degenerate. The thought that one can be both conservatively-inclined, intelligent, and not kill kittens before breakfast, while obvious, is surprisingly hard to grasp for a lot of otherwise educated and reasonable people. My conservative friends are at just as, if not more,guilty of this type of flawed reasoning. Just look at the trajectory that our political discourse is on here in the US and you'll see picture-perfect examples of everything that’s wrong about group-think. Us-vs-them is everywhere. Those who disagree are the Enemy or have been brainwashed by the Enemy and are too stupid to realize this.

As a personal anecdote, I’ve been accused of Antisemitism and Zionism both, within the span of hours, for some stance I took on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. People on both sides of the barricades classified me as belonging one of “them” and were happy to hate me for not landing squarely in either camp.

Likewise, I see the Zimmerman trial bringing out the worst in people on both sides the the (false) divide. On one hand, there’s people doing outright nasty things like making hoodied firing-range targets just as the Zimmerman family is flooded with hate-calls and death-threats. Even if you forget the crazies (after all, it’s usually the crazies that make most of the noise) even the mainstream of the “supporters” and “detractors” are behaving repugnantly, stretching the truth to places it doesn’t want to go, taking facts and words out-of-context, all in the name of the Greater Cause. Both groups are self-brainwashing with crowd-sourced propaganda and whipping themselves into a frenzy. Watching it makes my head hurt.

As a personal aside, a year and a half ago, or something like that, I spent about 4 weeks of my life sitting in a jury. It was an aggravated rape case, where the complaining witness described a blood-chilling story of a stranger jumping out of the bushes in a residential neighbourhood of San Francisco and forcing himself upon her as she screamed for help. I won't go into all the details of the case here — this is, after all, somewhat of a tangent — but we the jury found the man innocent. Did he rape her? Maybe. Probably even. But there was reasonable doubt and plenty of it. And he walked.

Look, our legal system is complicated. “Beyond reasonable doubt” is, by design, an extremely heavy burden. Does it lead to the guilty walking? Sure it does. By design. Our criminal justice system was envisioned, and for a very good reason, with the goal to minimize false positives at the expense of false negatives. It’s better to let 10 guilty men walk than to execute one innocent. I can get behind that.

Those of us protesting the verdict need to stop and realize that they were not there in that court room. It was not up to us to make the call that was made. Had we been there, some of us would have also voted “innocent”. It’s one thing to sit and judge from the comfort of our living rooms, and it’s a very different thing do that in the deliberation room. I know this. Do you?

Did Zimmerman get away with murder? Maybe. It happens all the time. The thing is, the outpouring of hate that I'm seeing all around me is not helping anyone. Wouldn't it be great if that same energy, and it’s a lot of energy, went towards erasing false dichotomies that keep us apart, divided, as we lob insults across the wall and publish series upon series of scathing articles?

Life is not a team sport. There is no us-vs-them, in reality it’s us-vs-ourselves and, you know what, we're losing. Complex questions have no easy answers and complex problems don’t have final solutions. The only way to improve our situation on this earth is to stop behaving like children in the above-referenced social experiments and do our best to look for commonalities, not differences. We have a lot in common, be we white or black, rich or poor, Democrat or Republican. As soon as we start to break down these walls, the worst of human nature starts to go away, and some of the worst of human behaviour goes away with it. This is a simple thought, but I've witnessed its power in action. Going against the grain is hard, sure, but most things in life that are of any value take work. Let’s roll up our sleeves.