Cultural Cognition and the Trayvon Martin Case
posted by Dave Hoffman
Over at the Cultural Cognition blog, Dan Kahan has two posts up, with a third promised, on the Trayvon Martin case. In the first, Dan argued that motivated cognition helps to explain why we disagree so vehemently about the facts of the Martin-Zimmerman incident. Indeed, he claimed that “we’ll never know what happened, because we—the members of our culturally pluralistic society—have radically different understandings of what a case like this means.”
In his second post, he connects the shooting to the history of stand-your-ground laws – and the NRA’s successful strategy to combine self-defense norms with gun rights. Arguing that turning Martin’s death into a discussion of the empirics of gun violence is exactly what the NRA would like, he urges that commentators “to just back off. Not only are you needlessly sowing division; you are destroying the prospects for a meaningful conversation of the values that—despite our cultural differences—in fact unite us. ”
As as is so often the case, Dan states offers a subtle and compelling argument for the relevance of motivated cognition in understanding public policy. I’ve actually been toying with writing a similar post – but it wouldn’t have been nearly as well-executed. So I hope you’ll go to the CCP blog and read what he’s written – it might cause you to rethink your priors on the tragedy in florida. Then please come back for a few further thoughts.
1. When Dan says that “we’ll never know what happened”, I bet he means to include a future where we find a videotape of the event. As the CCP project has found, video doesn’t reduce factual dissensus when the questions being asked are about motive or judgment. Though a video of the shooting might tell us, for example, if Zimmerman approached Martin or visa versa, it almost certainly would leave enough in doubt to permit culturally motivated inferences. That said, missing in Dan’s account is an explanation of why this particular case has caught the public’s eye when other asserted self-defense moments do not. In part I think that it’s the mystery that is driving attention here. Conflicting accounts, new witnesses, allegations of a police cover-up: these are all ammunition for new media stories, which continue to keep the event fresh in the public’s mind.
2. 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.
3. Dan implicitly asserts that the stand your ground lawmaking was intended to provide a booster shot for gun owners. This suggests a testable hypothesis. As compared to states without such laws, but with similar pre-existing cultures of gun ownership, stand your ground states should be losing their firearm traditions more slowly. Though testing expressive effects of laws is notoriously difficult, this seems like a nice experiment that an enterprising VAP might want to take on.