Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Real Lesson of the George Zimmerman Trial

The latest reality based media event has been the George Zimmerman trial.  Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin and most media outlets have reviewed the details of the case including courtroom reenactments of the physical confrontation that resulted in the shooting.  The secondary story is how the public will react to a verdict.  A tertiary story that is building at this time is media criticism - has the media gone to far and should there be cameras in the courtroom?

My point is not to reconstruct the arguments of case but to speculate about how unnecessary violent confrontations may occur in the first place.  They do occur frequently and the majority of those confrontations are not covered by the press.  You might read about them in your local newspaper or if you are a health professional you have probably encountered the victims or the combatants.  In my experience, the level of violence and the resulting injuries are always surprising.  People are punched in the face or head and die instantly.  People are struck or pushed and strike their heads on the way to the ground and die.  People are severely beaten on the street for either a trivial reason or the victims of gang violence and die or sustain disabling injuries.  Weapons are used against friends and family.  It is as if people think that you can engage in Hollywood style mayhem and in the end only the bad guys suffer.  The idea that the human body, especially the brain is extremely vulnerable and needs to be protected seems to be suspended.  But that in itself is not the root cause of the problem.

Violence and aggression as a means to resolve interpersonal conflict has been with the human race since prehistoric times.  I have found that Keeley offers the best historical account and analysis at the level of conflicting villages, city-states, and nations.  His original intent was to dispel the notion of the noble savage or the peaceful prehistoric man living in an idyllic situation.  He ends up showing that warfare has been a remarkably constant feature across time.    From his text:

"According to the most extreme views, war is an inherent feature of human existence, a constant curse of all social life, or (in guise of a real war) a perversion of human sociability created by the centralized political structures of states and civilizations.  In fact, cross cultural research on warfare has established that although some societies that did not engage in war or did so extremely rarely, the overwhelming majority of known societies (90-95%) have been involved in this activity." (p 27-28)

In reviewing some of the smaller pacifist pastoral societies,  Keeley cites their low population density as well as their strong moral distaste for violence (p 31) as a likely reason that the Semai could return to a peaceful existence after being recruited by the British to fight against Communist insurgents in the 1950s.  In his chapter "Crying Havoc-The Question of Causes", Keeley takes a fairly detailed look at how war starts as a combination of psychological and political factors starting off with a conflict between two villages where one village owed the other village a debt.  He demonstrates how that that conflict escalates to the point of violence and death for several reasons.  He cites prestige, theft,  adultery, and poaching as common reasons for conflicts with aggression resulting in death.  He concludes that the specific information from an archaeological standpoint is generally difficult to discern and considers broader contexts.

I think the implicit strength of Keeley's work is that he does have a lot of information on warfare and conflict in small and large societies and through all of that information the common thread is that humans resort to violence as a way to resolve conflict, even in situations that are relatively trivial and could easily be resolved by other means.  I  have made that observation repeatedly in clinical situations and the only exceptions are where the violence is driven by a psychiatric disorder.  It is also obvious that learning other strategies can definitely occur often times for the worst possible reasons.  An example is an aggressive man with antisocial personality disorder who typically gets what he wants by threatening or harming people.  If he survives long enough, he may get to the point where that is a losing tactic and he becomes less aggressive with age.  A more common example is the case of people referred to anger control groups through their contact with law enforcement or the courts.  Many find that the strategies they learn in these groups are very effective.

So what is the real lesson in this case?  The real lesson is that this violent confrontation did not need to occur.  All of the energy being expended in the debate about who was the victim and whether or not legal penalties should be assigned misses that point.  It should be fairly obvious that each side can construct a detailed narrative of what happened and how that should affect the outcome.  My courtroom experience has left me with the impression that it is possible that neither narrative is an entirely accurate representation of what happened.  Who would want their future decided by those circumstances?

All of the sensational coverage by the press misses even more widely.   Solving conflicts between people by aggression and homicide is a strategy of primitive man.  It arose out of a time before there was a legal system or designated police.  It came from a time where there was no recognition that every person is unique and society may be less if that unique person is lost.  Until there is the realization that violent confrontations are a toxic byproduct of of our prehistoric ancestors and that they are no longer necessary - there will continue to be unnecessary tragedies.  Society is currently complex and aggression will never be a final solution.  Coming up with better solutions at this point is the next logical step.

George Dawson, MD, DFAPA

Lawrence H. Keeley. War Before Civilization. Oxford University Press, 1997


  1. This post reminds me of Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature, about the dramatic decrease in violence over time with the centralization of state authority. And what's especially interesting to me is that as the incidence of violent crime decreased in the last few decades, the sensationalism of media coverage of violent acts has greatly increased.

    1. Agree - I have a post of the rates at:

      I think the media approach leads to a stagnant culture where people end up believing that there is a right or wrong story and sticking to it. From the anthropological approach, I think the real question is not who is right or who is wrong - but what happens if two strangers approach one another late at night and they both have the Semai's "strong moral distaste for violence." What if the same thing happens and only one of them has that value? Do we ever get to that point with "concealed carry laws" or "stand your ground" laws. It seems that we are polar opposites of the Semai.

    2. Will you ever write a review or refutation against Robert Whitaker's Mad In America?

  2. Probably when I no longer have a day job. That is not an insignificant factor when considering the weak response to criticism and inappropriate policies that we all have to live with. We all have to do it in our "spare" time and there is not much of it.