A Fine Line
In response to my recent post about the fact that no one has a right to be a vigilante, a number of people have argued that I’ve conflated vigilantism and self-defense. The most prominent of these is David French in the National Review:
Of course we give up the right to settle our own grievances, but we don’t give up the right to protect ourselves and our families before the police can arrive. Defending oneself from a home intruder or mugger is not the same thing as exercising a “right to punish criminal behavior.” You are not being punitive; you are being protective.
Thus, most people agree with me that vigilantism isn’t a natural right, but continue to disagree about self-defense. This simply isn’t a distinction that Locke makes in the Second Treatise and to make that distinction today so we can protect a supposed right to self-defense while stopping short of endorsing vigilantism is to misread Locke.
While there might very well be a difference in one’s mind when one prepares to shoot someone to protect oneself rather than to punish the other, the difference is negligible from a Lockean standpoint: Both are examples of people acting as judge, jury, and executioner. The gun owner, rather than a dispassionate third party, is the only person making the determination about life and death for another person.
There might be times when this is an unavoiadable scenario — and so self-defense is preserved as a possible legal defense for homicide — but one of the main reasons human beings chose civil society over the state of nature is to minimize these incidents.
On a less theoretical note, I think it’s important to note that there’s a very fine line between self-defense and vigilantism, as some gun owners today understand themselves to have the legal right to take the law into their own hands whenever they feel themselves to be threatened … whether at home or in public.
The relatively recent proliferation of “Stand Your Ground” laws — since 2005, about half of the states have passed such laws — has moved our understanding of self-defense from the home, where it was traditionally understood that one could defend oneself, to the public sphere, where one previously had a duty to retreat first and respond with violence second. And it has seemingly increased homicide rates in those states.
Perhaps the best example — and one that I think we’re not talking about nearly enough right now — is that of George Zimmerman and Travyon Martin.
It seems that a bunch of people either somehow find it amusing to take pictures of themselves posing as a deceased Trayvon Martin or else they just don’t understand the difference between getting good attention and bad attention for your actions.
As my friend who blogs over at The Noob Yorker rightly points out:
When you mock and belittle the death of Trayvon, you reinforce the racism that underpins our social institutions and in the process produce more events akin those in Florida.
I understand that everyone wants to make the next hot meme and get the internet to pay attention to them for a minute. But, seriously, stop behaving this way. It is awful.
This clip, excerpted from a much longer Bloggingheads diavlog with Robert Wright and Ann Althouse, is about three weeks old. I didn’t watch or listen to it when it first came out because I had the sense that Althouse’s take on the Trayvon Martin shooting would really bother me.
Three weeks later, I finally listened to the diavlog in its entirety. And, lo and behold, I was right about how I’d feel.
I’ll discuss my thoughts in what follows, but I should note first that the clip is only ten minutes long; I hope you’ll listen for yourself.
Althouse begins by opposing the entire idea of latching onto an individual case instead of looking at all of the evidence about violence, gun violence, race, and so on. Her claim is that appeals to emotion by focusing on one case has no place in a democracy because it dampens down the prospect for rational discourse about important issues.
From there, she proceeds as follows: She doesn’t understand Wright’s use of emotive language; she wants to know why the national discourse became all about this case rather than all of the others; she alleges that liberals are exploiting Martin’s death; she worries about due process for Zimmerman and bemoans vigilantes in pursuit of the original vigilante; she doesn’t understand why it matters that Zimmerman was carrying a gun and ultimately shot Martin with it; and she moves the remainder of the conversation to a discussion of whether Zimmerman was originally arrested or just detained and to an argument about the benefit of carrying guns.
Ultimately, Althouse does her level best not to actually talk about the Trayvon Martin killing. In no small part, that’s because she has no response at all to Wright’s argument that there’s a problem for society if a person has a concealed weapon, follows someone who hasn’t done anything wrong, ends up killing him, and avoids some sort of punishment. All she can manage is a claim that Wright’s position isn’t fine-grained enough and that there’s more texture that he hasn’t stated. “We should be more cool-headed,” she says at the very end of this clip.
I’d say there’s a big difference between jumping to conclusions about a case and being emotive about it. Wright doesn’t jump to conclusions and the conclusions he reaches here seem, to me at least, to be pretty cool-headed. What he fails to do, I think, is to really push back against Althouse, to ask her directly how she would respond to his central claim about what the shooting and its aftermath say about our society. She intimates that she actually agrees with his claim, but nothing in the rest of the diavlog demonstrates any agreement.
What’s more, Wright could have said a great deal more to dispute Althouse’s opposition to using individual cases to draw attention to a broader societal problem. For Althouse, this is an appeal to emotion that calls to her mind a totalitarian state. But, for me, the Martin case garnered so much attention because it laid bare the problem of the Stand Your Ground law and the problem of racism that persists (sometimes overtly and sometimes under the surface) in this country. Indeed, Althouse even gets away with talking about carrying guns for protection against thugs in her diversionary discussion of the virtues of concealed weapons. But this is precisely the sort of language — about dangerous thugs (who, we can be sure, are young black men) — that led Zimmerman to follow Martin, that led Geraldo Rivera to speak out against the scourge of the hooded sweatshirt, and that many people used to describe Martin in an attempt to allege that Zimmerman had some reason to follow him.
This is language that needs to be continuously challenged.
Spike Lee Tweets
The “mistake” is outlined in this March 27, 2012 piece from The Smoking Gun:
With Twitter and Facebook continuing to explode with posts purporting to contain the address of George Zimmerman, property records and interviews reveal that the home is actually the longtime residence of a married Florida couple, both in their 70s, who have no connection to the man who killed Trayvon Martin and are now living in fear due to erroneous reports about their connection to the shooter.
The mass dissemination of the address on Edgewater Circle in Sanford—the Florida city where Martin was shot to death last month—took flight last Friday when director Spike Lee retweeted a tweet containing Zimmerman’s purported address to his 240,000 followers.
The residence on Edgewater Circle is actually the home of David McClain, 72, and his wife Elaine, 70. The McClains, both of whom work for the Seminole County school system, have lived in the 1310-square-foot lakefront home for about a decade, records show.
I wrote this for the new Terrible Apologies blog this morning and thought I’d cross-post it here too because it’s a great example of a bad apology (and not only because an apology in 140 characters or fewer seems weak in and of itself):
The thing is, Lee was just wrong to retweet the address. Even if it had been the correct address, it’s still an incredibly irresponsible thing to do because it seems to be encouraring people to take the law into their own hands.
The word “mistake” implies that the retweet was an accident, like he hit the button unintentionally … in which case it probably wouldn’t have taken so long to apologize, since apologizing for having done something accidentally is relatively easy. It’s much more difficult to say that the emotions he felt about the Trayvon Martin shooting briefly led him to encourage people to harass George Zimmerman at his home.