Last weekend at the Mississippi ACLU's 6th Annual Hip-Hop Youth Justice Summit, I spent an hour teaching teenagers how to argue more effectively. That was the theory, anyway; this was an especially clever group of teenagers. They had more than a few good ideas themselves, and I left the room with fresher questions and sharper answers than I brought in. It was the best experience I'd ever had as a classroom instructor, and I came home envying high-school history teachers.
But the acquittal of George Zimmerman and the shooting death of his victim, Trayvon Martin, were on our minds--hard for them not to be. Zimmerman's attorneys, as far as the jury was concerned, had won the argument: He shot an unarmed 17-year-old black kid, and he'd gotten away with it. As far as public opinion goes, George Zimmerman may have a future in right-wing politics: 70 percent of white Republicans support his acquittal, and Internet message boards are full of posts from middle-aged white dudes declaring Zimmerman some kind of hero.
How can we prove he wasn't?
We mulled over the Zimmerman question in the workshop. As far as I'm concerned, the sort of person who would consider somebody a hero for killing an innocent kid is probably beyond the reach of an argument. The best we can do is focus on persuading everybody else. I managed to expand this basic idea into a set of chalkboard diagrams, and then we finished our discussion.
On the way home I thought about the curious, humane teenagers in that classroom and the dull, inhumane adults who are making public-policy decisions in our state. I wondered how many of these adults used to be more like those teenagers, and I wondered what died inside of these adults to turn them into the creatures they are.
I didn't turn on talk radio on the way home, but if I had I might have stumbled across part of the answer. Because if you're a curious and humane white teenager in Mississippi, sometimes you pay the social cost that comes along with that. At best, people are going to think you're naive, wishy-washy and politically correct, but more often they'll have names for you that I wouldn't want to see printed in the Jackson Free Press. To prove you're not one of the people they're talking about, you have to prove your skin is thick--thick enough to support the gun-slinging George Zimmerman, thick enough to boot sick black kids off Medicaid in Holmes County, thick enough to make sure a gay man's partner of 40 years won't be mentioned in his newspaper obituary, thick enough to ridicule rape survivors, thick enough to give or take a strong left hook, thick enough to believe God approves of the whole stinking mess.
Nobody is born like that. Maybe these adults got that way because recognizing how much other people have to go through is too painful. Maybe it's because they want to earn their fathers' respect. Maybe it's because they've been screwed over one too many times themselves. Maybe it's because they want their own life stories to look sadder, in a relative sense, than they are. I don't know. I can't know. I can't even pretend to know.
Everybody who sees George Zimmerman as a hero, like everybody who has ever lived, has a new story. Real lives are not textbook cases. "Normal" human experience does not really exist.
But everybody is entitled to their own best guesses, and here's mine:
Cruel people become cruel by winning arguments against themselves. I believe that every time we lie, every time we refuse to value another person's life, every time we intentionally hurt somebody else, we go into battle against our own hearts and our own curious minds--and we win. And winning feels good. It feels so good, sometimes, that it doesn't even matter why we're winning or what the long-term ramifications might be.
Other people could say so much here--about systemic racism, white privilege, anxious masculinity and the myth of redemptive violence--and it's all relevant. We need to say more, not less, about these things.
If I had turned on talk radio on the way home, I think I would have heard one more white man trying oh, so hard and, oh, so persuasively, to keep winning arguments against his gentler impulses. Cheering him on would be a crowd of other white men trying to do the same thing. I can't wish them luck. They, and the rest of us, deserve better.
Freelance writer Tom Head is a Jackson native. He has written or co-written 24 nonfiction books, is a civil-liberties writer for about.com and is a grassroots progressive activist.