Saturday, July 27, 2013

Very late and very long thoughts about Trayvon Martin, statistical semiotics, and the length of the arc of history

  Correction, 9/30/2013: The original version of this post said that the "creepy-ass cracker" comment from Martin came from a recording of his cell phone conversation. The actual source was the testimony of Rachel Jeantel. The error has been corrected below.  I am indebted to George Taylor for the correction.


Initial apology: A completely unqualified opinion for which it is likely you will have very little use, and even less likely that you will want so much of it

I like thinking slowly; it might be the only way in which I actually think.  (And I've talked about that quite a bit, and recently). Often I don't see, know, or have any clear idea of what matters to me within any reasonable response cycle in the modern internet world.  When I do have an idea I like, I prefer to chew on it and rethink for a long time, and by the time I present it, it's way too long for most internet-trained attention spans anyway. Nearly everything I blog could be responded to with tl;dr, which is another reason not to have a comments section, as my answer to that tends to be well, it was as l as I wanted it to be, t bad if you only read shorter things, so it's fine with me that you dr it.

Besides, I also have very few original ideas, and Samuel Johnson's old jab about what's original isn't good and what's good isn't original often seems, to me, to apply to things I've written, which makes it advisable to let ideas cook long enough so that more of them can just go away and stop bothering me before they annoy anyone else. 
I don't think that I think particularly deeply but I do like to ruminate for a long time, and though rumination doesn't guarantee either depth or thoroughness, it does seem to lead to elaboration and all those buts and ifs and howevers that proper modern decisive netizens are supposed to eschew. So after all that ruminating, I end up saying something that's complicated and self-contradictory enough to take quite a bit of explaining, which then does not reduce to something small enough for the flash-the-idea/trash-the-sender world of tha interwebz.

So the Trayvon Martin case has come and seems to have mostly gone without my doing or saying more than some retweeting, and I thought, well, there goes another current event about which I never found anything to say other than an occasional "right on" to identify which side I was on (which the retweets took care of). 

But now, when people are mostly done with it (and yes, I know, people are trying not to be done with it, but I think the odds are against them), to my mild annoyance with myself, I find I do have something or other to say, not quite like what anyone else seems to have said or be saying. Given how unoriginal I tend to be, probably all that indicates is that I don't follow current events like a responsible, properly behaved twitching neuron in the global net. I dip in and out at irregular intervals and resist the whole idea that there is anything "essential" about much of anything I read, on line or off.  So I probably missed some famous and/or fully qualified responsible person saying all this before.

So, anyway, here goes, down a somewhat different road, or at least one where I haven't seen others walking. 

A warning about authority and mainstreamness and whether you'll know any more when you're done than when you started

There's a heavy semiotic aspect, because intellectually that tends to be the stance from which I attack any problem, and along the way I'll slide in some of the kinds of semiotics I practice (Peircean, Lotmanian, and statistical) which are usually not regarded as mainstream in the discipline.

I'm also doing what I think an essay is for: playing around with ideas, chopping and recombining like salad or breaking and gluing parts from different kits the way Hollywood special effects guys used to do. Eventually I wallop the ideas into whatever shapes please me for the moment, without anything like the rigor I'd use for a commercial client, let alone for an academic paper, where I might be more worried about permanence.

Therefore: WARNING nothing I say here should be quoted, or more likely misquoted, with any preface along the lines of "Semiotics reveals that ..." or "Semioticians think." One mostly commercial, not notably original statistical semiotician had the following not particularly original thoughts, okay? No science here. Just an angle I haven't seen anyone else talking about.

A semiotic angle on the Trayvon Martin case: there were at least two stories, and they served different purposes

I'm going to assume you're at least sort of familiar with the facts and the trial: Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black 17 year old who was staying with his father, in a gated community, had gone out for candy and a soft drink, and was walking home on a rainy night, was noticed by George Zimmerman, a member of the Neighborhood Watch, who called in the sighting of a black kid in a hoodie to the dispatcher.  Contrary to the dispatcher's instructions, Zimmerman followed Martin, apparently lost track of him for a time, and eventually got out of his car, taking his personal handgun with him.

Not long after, he fatally shot Martin.

The best available evidence consists of:

  • the testimony of Martin's friend Rachel Jeantel, who was on the phone with him at the beginning of the conversation, and who testified that he  knew he was being followed and was angry about it, at one point referring to Zimmerman as a "creepy-ass cracker." 
  • recordings of Zimmerman's conversation with the dispatcher.

Zimmerman claimed he got out of his car to try to read a street sign (rather than to pursue Martin), that Martin then surprise-attacked him and was beating him severely enough to make him legitimately fear for his life, and that he shot Martin in self-defense.

Zimmerman's story was supported by some superficial wounds on the back of Zimmerman's head, police who said they saw water and grass on the back of his jacket, and the testimony of witnesses:

  • a neighbor who described one man straddling another such that the description of the man on top is a better fit to Martin
  • the autopsy revealed a point blank shot in the heart that apparently occurred while Martin's clothing was sagging away from him, i.e. consistent with his being on top and leaning forward.

There are a number of inconsistencies and points of confusion that don't need to detain us here.

A brief pause for some semiotic terminology

Slinging some Peircean semiotics around here: the two stories are representema (singular, representamen), a "thing that stands for something else."

The meanings given to them (and fought about by lawyers in front of a judge and jury), are interpretants, the "thing stood for."  A representamen may of course have more than one interpretant. A sounding smoke alarm may stand for a smoldering fire in the house, a forest fire a long way upwind, a guest trying to sneak a smoke inside your hourse, unremembered toast, or your obnoxious child having fun with a broom handle.

If you're a European semiotician, you stop at the representament/interpretant pair and call them signifier/signified. In the Peirce-inflected semiotics I prefer, there's a third component, the object, which took Peirce a long time to understand himself (the theoretical logic that underpins his semiotics demands that signs behave as if they have three parts, but it took him most of his life to see what that third part did and why it was essential*). 
The meaning of object that Peirce eventually settled on, according to his letter to Lady Welby dated 12 October 1904, seems to have been his final (and I think correct) position: The object is whatever lets you know that the representamen exists/happens and makes you aware that it is a representamen, that is that it stands for something. For example: 
  • the silence of the smoke alarm most of the time
  • the frame around an object on the wall that tells you that what it encloses is art rather than just a stray object hanging there
  •  the lights dimming between scenes of a play
  • the difference in shape between  mandatory, octagonal road signs and triangular, advisory ones
  • the white space around a black letter on the page
  • the scent added to natural gas so that it doesn't just smell like air

Looking ahead, I'm thinking the following: people have spent a great deal of time dickering  about the representema in this case (the two stories). They have largely assumed and loudly expressed the interpretants (the innocent-Trayvon-was-murdered and the innocent-Zimmerman-defended-himself.  But the objects have been mostly ignored, or not thought about, and before the case fades totally from memory, I want to say a bit about those.  I'll get there eventually, but first, let's think about:

How the interpretants of the two stories shaped their representema

By any reasonable judgment, George Zimmerman is guilty of something, whether legally or not. He created the situation, entirely on his own, by deciding to behave in a threatening way toward a teenager who was walking on a public street with every right to be there.

All the firmly documented escalation—that is, the things we can be quite sure happened, like his continuing his pursuit and his ignoring the dispatcher's telling him to stop—were committed by Zimmerman. At every point where we have a clear-cut sign that the evidence has not been tampered with, e.g. in the dispatcher's recording, every time there's a choice between escalating the situation and leaving it as it is (or de-escalating), Zimmerman chooses to escalate.

His behavior clearly alarmed Martin, and reasonably so. Someone you don't know following you, persistently, on a dark night is surely alarming to a reasonable person.

Most importantly, even if it's not law, as a point of either moral or prudential judgment, Zimmerman should have said, "Excuse me, sir, I'm with neighborhood watch, just checking to see if everything's okay," loudly, from the window of his car, when he first saw Martin. If he was trying to keep the streets safe from vandals or burglars, simply politely identifying himself and checking to see who the teenager on the street was would have more than taken care of the situation.

(The science fiction writer in me, who can never shut down apparently, can't help wondering if in some alternate reality, Zimmerman rolled down that window and asked, then offered a ride home because it was raining; Trayvon Martin accepted, every so often they see each other on the street and wave, and nobody has ever heard of either of them.)

From the first sighting onward, Zimmerman's behavior is much more consistent with a youngish man playing cop than with what is supposed to be the function of Neighborhood Watch, i.e. making the area safer.

So Zimmerman made a series of choices, some of them reckless and all predicated on a "need" to harass a citizen who was doing nothing illegal, that eventually created a situation in which that citizen was killed by Zimmerman.

Now, not least as a teacher, a manager, and a step-parent, I have come to see a great deal of value in the principle that justice must not only be done, but be seen to be done. Zimmerman created the situation, Martin died at his hands in it, and that's the kind of situation for which the Western legal tradition created the concept of manslaugher, whether or not the exact Florida law and specific evidence would support a conviction for it in this case. The prosecution's job is supposed to be to demonstrate that an act or series of acts occurred, and that they fit the legal definition of some crime and merit some punishment, and the larger purpose of that job is to align law with justice, thus enhancing everyone's security under law.

Creating a situation in which someone is killed is the essence of manslaughter, which normally covers things that range in moral culpability from deaths in bar fights or in fires that were deliberately set, down the scale to things like recklessly riding a bicycle through a red light into a crowded crosswalk, thus colliding with an man and causing fatal injuries.  In Florida, the manslaughter laws appear to be more restrictive than they are in some other states—here's the clearest summary I've found—especially when self-defense is involved, so some things that would be manslaughter in other states might not be in Florida.

The prosecution chose to try to shape the story to fit into the category that seems like a perverse choice: second degree murder. In Florida, second degree murder, as I understand it, requires that the escalations (which, as noted, are well-documented) be accompanied by some intent toward the eventual outcome (and the only direct evidence about Zimmerman's intended outcome lies locked in the depths of George Zimmerman's memory). 

Only late in the trial did the prosecutors begin to pursue the possibility of manslaughter. Because this was a state prosecutor pushed into the job by an unsympathetic governor after the local prosecutor had already dropped the case, there remains in my mind an unprovable but undismissable possibility that the whole thing was a sandbag, i.e. by pushing a charge for which it would be difficult or impossible to win a conviction, the prosecution threw away a conviction they might have won.

This I-think-foolish decision necessarily meant that much more of the prosecution narrative was focused on Zimmerman's unprovable motives rather than on his unquestionably bad judgment. Because the desired interpretant was a more serious criminal conviction, the representamen was shaped around the weakest, rather than the strongest, parts of the prosecution's evidence.

An altogether different problem shaped the defense story: due to the legal concept of reasonable doubt, their story needed to be two things:
one, something that might have been what happened
two, supported by enough corroboration so that at least one juror would consider it too likely to dismiss.

It is therefore no surprise at all that that favorite bugaboo of the law-and-order crowd, "technicalities", (in this case, of self-defense in murder and manslaughter cases), seems to have shaped the invention, selection, or discovery of the details of the defense story:
if the span of time between frightening and harassing a teenager on the street and then getting out of a car with a gun is long enough,
and  if events reverse who is attacking and who is fleeing (but not too quickly or fluidly, as the reversal must be clear),
then the ensuing fight is to be considered separately from the provocative escalation leading up to it,
and therefore the only facts to be considered were that at the moment he pulled out the gun and pulled the trigger, Zimmerman was losing a fight in which he said he reasonably feared death or serious injury,
 and the sparse corroboration of Zimmerman's story  was strong enough for the jury  to think the story could not reasonably be ruled out,
by considering only the small slice of time in which Zimmerman was losing the fight (that he provoked, and we only have his word that Martin started it long enough after Zimmerman's initiating aggression),
it might be possible
for a willing jury to acquit him.

So the defense story was shaped somewhat by corroboration, but mostly by plausibility; the desired interpretant was only that the defense story had a reasonable chance of being true, because if a jury that wanted to acquit decided that the story was undismissable, that was enough "reasonable doubt" to make Zimmerman unconvictable.  (Go ahead and drop me notes, lawyerly folk, and in a future blog post I'll correct or amplify this as needed).

Thus the representamen, i.e. the defense story, need only be "plausible argument for doubt."

Or, in short, the prosecution's story needed to be a tight focus on a few critical undismissable facts, mostly of the who/what/where variety, and the defense's story needed to be a collection of potential evasions and slip-outs, because they were representema for two very different interpretants.

The objects of the stories, and their migration into general discourse

An important part of what an object is, in Peircean semiotics, is what it is not.  (This is not unlike Derrida's argument about the presence of an absence, for those of you more comfortable with the Continental school). If you type in black on a black page, the lack of an object (the boundary with the contrasting white) means there's no sign that can be interpreted. If the smoke alarm is always on, it doesn't tell you when there's a fire or not. (Also, I'm not coming to your house). 

An object can also be a clear, intentional withholding of the expected, or fulfillment of it. In James Thurber's "The Little Girl and the Wolf,"  one of the objects of the story is its difference from Little Red Riding Hood. The object tells us Thurber is satirizing fairy tales and children's literature, rather than gun rights for little girls, the plight of senior citizens without food, or the adoption of subterfuge by wolves. Many modern horror movies mock the older conventions in their dialogue precisely to signal "not a story" just before something frightening happens. And so forth.

Now, one reason why I like Peirce is because I like Walter Koch and Yuri Lotman, and Peirce's ideas are more compatible with theirs than the Continental arbitrary two-part sign. Koch and Lotman both hit, in their different ways, on the idea that we actually respond more to populations of signs than to individual ones, and to population characteristics like modes and patterns of relationships (that's the statistical part of statistical semiotics), and that although people manipulate signs, to paraphrase Karl Marx in a similar context, they don't manipulate them just as they please. 

If the Continentals are right and signs are completely arbitrary, then you might say  "It's Wednesday" to mean it's raining, just because you were enjoying your arbitrary power, or as an artistic comment on how too many people worry about the weather or what day it was, or because you got a wild hair up your ass.  It's a Humpty Dumpty world with all of us as a hapless Alice.

Lotman's fundamental insight is that because there's an enormous pre-existing noosphere, some signs replicate much more easily than others. Koch would add that they replicate most easily into sites that are ready for them. Peirce's tripartite sign, to me, does for Lotman and Koch what Mendel did for Darwin: it explains the individual mechanism under the grand pattern. Some signs are less arbitrary than others, less-arbitrary signs replicate more easily, and there's the mechanism for the evolutionary shaping of sign-populations in Lotman. 

If a sign from one discourse/population sheds any one of its three parts, and then replaces it with a sign in another discourse/population, that "mutation" or alteration is the exact process by which it migrates effectively into the new discourse, and that is what Koch was talking about in his enormous, complex ELPIS model; he used a lock-and-key metaphor rather like the receptor sites of modern molecular biology.**

So, in the present ideological climate of the United States, well before the trial opened, the prosecution and defense stories migrated out of the courtroom  and into the general culture, where they replicated into something that had fairly little to do with the original case.  Specifically, I think they shed their objects and acquired new ones.

The prosecution's story's object had been the correspondence between the attested events and the legal requirements for second degree murder (that is, that was the frame intended).

The defense's story's object had been a place inside a genre that might be called "believable and likely self defense stories."

But out in the world, the objects of those signs fell away, and new objects replaced them (leaving the representamen/interpretant, or story/justice links relatively intact).   In the larger sphere of political discourse, the object of the prosecution's stories morphed into a relationship to the very numerous genre of stories of harassment of young black men, and of young black men being killed with impunity.  That, for example, is the genre in which President Obama placed it when he talked about his own experiences.

The object of the defense's story, out in the public and political realm, not only phrased Zimmerman as the victim (initially of Martin, then of public outcry and the prosecutors) and did not stop at declaring his behavior as wholly innocent (which again, I don't see any way that the facts of the case can bear out), though either of those was bad enough by itself. It phrased Zimmerman as the good guy, the force of order protecting society from a scary, frightening, and barely recognizable version of Martin. The new object shoved the story and its implied verdict into a context that included Dirty Harry, Falling Down, Death Wish, and every other image of the brave lone white guy against the black thug.

Rationalized racism

When that became the object, the maneuvering of the defense to include evidence that showed that like a very large number of young men (including quite a few young white men and just possibly even including Zimmerman), Trayvon Martin was somewhat enamored of/fascinated by/emotionally engaged with street-thug culture***, in turn, became something far more sinister in the wider distribution of the story into political discourse: the object of that was no longer simply a defense attorney exploring anything that might make a jury excuse his client, but instead a rationalization that Martin, and not Zimmerman, had been the guilty one, that Zimmerman had not merely been a pseudocop far overreaching his mandate, but a defender of us all correctly recognizing a real threat.  The object became a set of stories and symbols in which suspicion, fear, and a readiness for violence toward African-American was normal, expected, rational, even praiseworthy.  The phrase "rationalized racism" is harsh, but as many people have observed, once you perceive the big flat bill, the webbed feet, the feathers, and the quacking, "duck" is pretty much the only word that will do, however hurt the duck's feelings may be by the term.

You can hear rationalized racism echoing in Juror B-37's quoted remarks about Zimmerman "having his heart in the right place," (what someone else might call being a good goon for his masters). I'm not a big fan of the sardonic "Really?" but there are times when no other reply will do.

The object of the defense story in the courtroom was a choice made by a defense attorney doing his job, which is often a distasteful job, but a fair world demands that there be defense attorneys, and that they use any tool they are allowed to, and that sometimes they succeed perhaps more than they are entitled to. But the object of the same story, migrated out to the political world, is a specific rationale for hatred, fear, and pre-emptive violence against African-American citizens who have, after all, been central to our culture one hell of a long time. It has been very close to fifty years since Martin Luther King stood in front of the Lincoln Memorial and pointed out that it had been a hundred years since the Emancipation Proclamation.

It will still be sixty-some more years, by what I think is the most reasonable way to count it, before African-Americans on our part of the continent will have had as many years of putative freedom as they had of literal slavery.  That is, let me repeat, a hell of a long time, and I mean both the hell and the long emphatically.

And the swift, easy adoption of that version of the story in which Martin had it coming and Zimmerman was the defender and all the rest shows that the racist object "genre of white defense against black savagery" is waiting and ready to go in an enormous portion of the white population.  As Koch might say, that lock is always already there, waiting for its next key; or Lotman might compare our white conservatives to an immuno-compromised population, where any new racist infection will spread like lightning, because the object has attached itself to notions of reasonability and rationality, like a piece of malware on a download of some popular useful program.

The potential of rationalized racism was there, waiting, the day  Trayvon Martin was born.  It was still there when, bored because his parents had relocated him to get him away from what looked like the beginning of trouble****, he went out to get a bag of candy. It grows stronger every time another story like this is picked up and spread through the same channels.  And it will be there, waiting, again, for the next one, and for dozens and hundreds yet to come.

The readiness with which very large numbers of Americans fastened onto the revised object of Zimmerman's story makes me think that at the rate we are going, in 2078, when the "free" years pull ahead and begin to exceed the "slave" years, things may not have changed very much from the present. The poll data shows that the people who bought into that version were about what you'd expect nowadays: mostly white and mostly Republican/conservative.  It's encouraging, though, that younger white Republicans seem to be buying into it less.  After all, Abe Lincoln, U.S. Grant, Teddy Roosevelt, Fiorello LaGuardia, Wendell Wilkie, Nelson Rockefeller, and John L. Lewis, among others, were white Republicans, and I suppose in the long run of time there's hope for anyone.

But the hope has not been gleaming very brightly, lately.


*And being extra-super fussy for all the Peirce fans out there, Peirce thought the representamen was the first part of the sign, the object the second, and the interpretant the third, so I could more accurately have said he knew there must be a second part, which he dubbed the object, but it took him decades to arrive at his eventual identification of the second part, whereas the first and third were identified in the 1870s. The resemblance between intellectual puzzles and crossword puzzles is sometimes closer than intellectuals are comfortable with.
**Koch, I think, is one of those ahead-of-his-time guys like Reich, Turing, Blake, or Tesla, or for that matter Peirce: clearly brilliant at the beginning, harder and harder to understand later, and it will be up to posterity to figure out exactly where (or if) he went off the rails.

*** wisely and justly quashed by the judge for exactly the same reason that we don't allow defense attorneys in rape cases to discuss the height of a woman's heels. the color of her underwear, or whether she likes dirty books, because a young man romanticizing fighting no more gives you the right to kill him than a young woman liking to feel sexy creates a right to rape.
**** Another one of those little things that says too much: parents moving a kid away from getting into a bad crowd, experimenting with pot, hanging around with friends who like to talk about violence (though the most quoted one is a friend telling Trayvon to chill out about it): that situation with white kid=good proactive parents of spirited, slightly wild kid. With Trayvon, that situation=parents feebly attempting to exert some authority over their proably already irredeemable street-thug brute of a son.  It's astonishingly painful to think about what it must be like to be his parents, right now or any time for the rest of their lives.