George Zimmerman and the Two Americas

Increasingly I worry that we’re becoming two Americas on every issue, from climate change to energy policy to fiscal policy to the truth about evolution or anything else that’s remotely political, scientific or cultural, and that this division is being exacerbated by the news media, partisans, charlatans and assorted bloviators in the Angersphere who never met a topic they couldn’t demagogue. (Another dangerous trend: Run-on sentences.)

Look at the reaction to the Zimmerman case, both in published commentary and just in the comments posted on news articles. There are two realities dueling here, both based around the belief that this was an outrageous miscarriage of justice, but with opposite conclusions about who the victim was.

Of course my version of reality is the correct one. That goes without saying.

To me this was a clear case of racial profiling, with a wannabe cop packing a gun deciding that there was something innately suspicious about a black kid walking through his neighborhood. Trayvon Martin was on his way home from getting a snack. Zimmerman initiated the encounter, which escalated into tragedy. The prosecution (by all accounts) put on a weak case. I didn’t watch the testimony so I won’t second-guess the verdict. It had many precedents in Florida going back to the McDuffie case, and Alvarez. Note that the jury wasn’t asked to decide if Zimmerman behaved correctly, or morally, or whether it makes any sense for crime-watch volunteers to be packing guns, or whether Zimmerman’s failure to stay in his car rather than provoke an encounter was a catastrophic mistake — only whether the shooting was a crime under Florida law.

President Obama has asked the American people to expand their circle of compassion, which sounds like an appeal for a Kumbaya moment, but that’s not how we’re wired now. Instead we have Alan Dershowitz saying the prosecutor should be disbarred. Conservative commentator Roger L. Simon says that by inserting himself into the case and saying Trayvon could have been his son, Obama “disgraced himself and his office, made a mockery of our legal system and exacerbated racial tensions in our country, making them worse than they have been in years. This is the work of a reactionary, someone who consciously/unconsciously wants to push our nation back to the 1950s.” There’s a nuanced perspective!

The dueling realities are the product of a society that increasingly succumbs to demagoguery and profit-driven divisiveness. There is an emerging field called cultural cognition. It studies how we think, and why, and how these opinions are shaped by our cultural affiliations. There are topics like climate change that get sucked into the vortex of ideology, and then people decide what’s true and not true based on their identity with a cultural group rather than a cold-eyed analysis of the facts.

The recurring characteristic of these divisions is that people begin their thought process with a conclusion and then work backward from there. They seek information that affirms what they’ve already decided. This is confirmation bias. They’re not searching for answers because they think they already know them. Nothing could persuade them that they’re wrong.


Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
Show Comments

Sign up for Today's Headlines

Start every morning with the most important stories.

Most Read National
Next Story
Joel Achenbach · July 11, 2013