If you’ve ever watched two (drunk) guys squaring up to one another in the pub, you’ll know all that you need to know about US law. Foreign policy, too, I suspect.
And if, like me, you think testosterone-fuelled posturing is a bad way to run anything, let alone one of the most powerful nations in the world, you need only look at the latest awful verdict from the US justice system in the case of Trayvon Martin to understand why.
(and if you have a spare moment, to understand why reactionary calls for similar in the UK should be resisted at all costs).
“Stand your ground”: madness enshrined in law
The problem is more than adequately set out in this piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates (thanks to Suzanne Moore for drawing it to my attention) . Ta-Nehisi’s analysis is not one I would quibble with. He points out that the murder of Trayvon Martin was not some isolated incident or misfiring of justice. Nope: it “is not our system malfunctioning. It is our system working as intended”.
By which he means, at base, a system born in hatred and prejudice and designed to keep the non-white in his or her place.
Hanging over all is the absurdity of “stand your ground” legislation, which is summed, by Ta-Nehisi as follows:
Effectively, I can bait you into a fight and if I start losing I can legally kill you, provided I “believe” myself to be subject to “great bodily harm.”
Gendering in conflict resolution
Wow! This is very front of mind today because I have been thinking about how far social imperatives to defuse conflict get imposed on women, or are seen as the “weaker” feminine option in any situation.
Standing up to an aggressor, on the other hand, is the manly thing to do, the strong thing. Which is odd, because it also strikes me as the insane thing to do in many situations – the thing that is guaranteed to get someone hurt, perhaps seriously – as well as the morally suspect thing.
I’m no stranger to conflict. It goes with the territory, both being me and doing the job I do. A lot of my writing takes me nowhere more dangerous than the Palace of Westminster, there to interview a tame parliamentarian. (Though having sat next to Eric Joyce, MP at dinner once, perhaps I should be less sure of myself on that front). But sometimes it takes me to the front line of demos, leaves me talking to public officials who are angry and potentially dangerous. Later this year, it may take me a step beyond that, to somewhere very dangerous indeed.
And I have personal rules for handling this stuff. First, avoid aggressive dead ends. Don’t put yourself into a place or a situation where you are likely to be facing someone violent with no easy way out for yourself. Second, speak softly: don’t put yourself at odds with the other person. Finally, defuse: because in the end, your ego matters less than physical harm, to you or to others.
Where does that come from? A Christian upbringing, for one. I do, strongly, believe in turning the other cheek, which I see NOT as weakness, but as morally right. Its pragmatic, too. I’m tall. Stronger than some. But wtf! I don’t see why my personal safety should balance on whether I can arm-wrestle some twonk to the ground, or whether I pull a knife or fire a gun first.
Yes. I know there will be times when force is genuinely last and only resort. But not the way the US legal system has set it up. Not this “duty” to “stand your ground”. There is racism behind this – and I’ll return to that in a mo. But there is also sheer, bloody-minded masculinism.
And it makes me cross when too many guys place this sort of bad behaviour on a pedestal and then contrast and condemn “weak behaviour”. Maybe someone should explain that “jiu jitsu” actually means the “soft way”, is predicated on the idea that force never meets force.
So, yeah, let’s call that one. There is an unhealthy, sick strand in US political thinking that is based on male aggression and dick measuring. Odd, given how vaingloriously Christian that country is on other issues, such as gay rights or abortion. It surfaces in the UK when people wish to go beyond “reasonable force” in dealing with burglars. If your legal system enshrines some caveman right to stand up for yourself, as opposed to encouraging you to stand down and minimise harm, then your legal system is, itself sick.
Though that is only half the problem. Because if that’s what the law REALLY meant, then we might see some interesting results. Because it would mean that a women fearful of rape would be entitled to kill her aggressor. A gay or trans individual, walking alone at night and approached by some idiot queer-basher would be entitled to take down aforementioned idiot.
It means that those fearful of over-aggressive policing might be justified in retaliating. It means – heaven forfend! – that had Trayvon been carrying a gun that fateful night, he would have been entitled to kill George Zimmermann.
(And how ironic if, now, someone did just that to Mr Zimmermann on the grounds that, given his track record, they were genuinely fearful for their life, interacting with him).
But this, of course, is where the racism comes in: where patriarchy and normative thinking enters the fray. Because even though Justice is meant to be blind, how long do any of us genuinely believe it would stay so if minorities had the gall to imagine that it was there for them, too. That, in fact, the law was really meant to be even-handed and that “stand your ground” applied not simply to white middle-class males – but to people of colour, to women, to gay, lesbian and trans persons too.
To quote another icon of the “stand your ground” set, also lauded for his homicidal approach to law enforcement: “Go ahead, punk: make my day”.
Just don’t make the mistake of believing that anyone lacking in the requisite equipment – white cojones – would be allowed to get away with it.