Fill in the blank: Kobe Bryant is a ___________.
Your answer, most likely, was heavily influenced by the “tribe” to which you belong. Are you a Los Angeles Lakers apologist? Maybe you’re a Larry-Bird-Is-A-Basketball-God professing Celtics fan? After all, few American institutions create the fervency of tribal mentality that sports fandom generates. All the more, I wonder how friends and family of the then 19-year-old hotel worker who accused Bryant of sexual assault in 2003 would answer. They belong to a much different type of tribe – far removed from the superfluous commitment of jerseys and face paint. Their commitment is grounded in the smiles, hugs, and tears that can only be experienced in close personal relationship.
Now fill in this blank: George Zimmerman is a ___________.
What’s the right answer? What tribe do you belong to?______________________________________________
In the Summer of 1995, my family moved from the lower middle class Los Angeles neighborhood I grew up in to Anaheim Hills, an upper class region of Orange County, California. The previous year, Orange County became the largest municipality to file for Chapter IX bankruptcy in the history of the United States due to some of the most irresponsible investments ever made by government officials. Property values continued their decent, and in a matter of months housing prices in Anaheim Hills were shockingly affordable. My parents pounced. Aided by the $30,000 down payment made by a generous family friend, I suddenly found myself living smack dab in the middle of a culture I had only ever observed from afar.
Almost immediately, and for the first time in my life, I felt poor.
We weren’t, of course. My family had it easier than countless other Americans. But in Los Angeles, my friends wore the same generic brand clothes I did, played with the same plastic toys, and our parents’ cars all leaked similar looking fluids. We understood each other. We belonged to the same tribe. Now I lived in a world where friends picked me up in sparkly new Ford Mustangs and bought me breakfast burritos while we blasted The Offspring on our way to zero period. I appreciated my new friends, but never felt like I was one of them.
Which brings us to the crux of it all. Us. Them.
Who is them? How do they become a “them”? And what makes us different than them?______________________________________________
I once played guitar in a band that did a show for a Green Arts Festival in Marin County – a notoriously liberal-minded area north of San Francisco. The crowd was fun and lively, but they, quite literally, booed and hissed at us when we mentioned we were from Orange County (a politically conservative hotbed). A local newspaper actually wrote a piece about us largely because they were perplexed that a band from Orange County would want to perform at a socially progressive function. After the show, a man walked up to me to talk politics. “All conservatives are either sadists or legally insane.” Those were his exact words. I’ll never forget them.
I’ve heard conservative talk radio hosts compare Democrats to Adolf Hitler. I’ve heard liberal commentators say similar things about Republicans. Americans tend to scoff at the inability of Israelis and Palestinians to reach a sustained truce; all the while our local AM radio stations regularly spew forth hate speech over what amounts to political minutiae. Are we really so different from them, I wonder?
In the beginning, long before the days of monarchs and governments and political parties, nomadic hunter-gatherers lived in familial tribal groups. Actually, that’s a misnomer – many human beings continue to live in such groups today. Our closest evolutionary cousins, Chimpanzees, also operate within a tribal structure, and are known to regularly kill members of rival groups in order to gain territory. Such behavior reminds me of a time in American history when we systematically murdered entire native people groups for the sake of enlarging “our” territory. I suppose it is much easier to take a life when the victim is a “them.”
Perhaps there is genetic material in the very fiber of human DNA that drives us to identify ourselves with a group, a tribe. And perhaps, morality is the courage to fight against those divisive and violent predispositions stemming from our own human nature. ______________________________________________
Lakers or Celtics?
Republican or Democrat?
Hutu or Tutsi?
Us or Them?
How we identify ourselves will inevitably shape how we view the world around us. Conversely, our worldview will always shape our self-identification. This is not some providential discovery. It’s common sense.
During an altercation on the night of February 26, 2012, a Florida man named George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old. Some view Zimmerman’s recent acquittal on 2nd Degree Murder charges as the just freeing of an innocent man who acted in self-defense. For others, the case is a travesty of the American justice system, oozing with sobering racial implications. Furthermore, many American tribal lines are divided on issues that have nothing to do with skin color. Almost certainly, gun control advocates will approach this case differently than active NRA members. A parent will view these events through a lens that people without kids just don’t have access to. And somewhere in the wreckage of our groupthink, preconceived notions, and tribal biases lies The Truth. And a dead body.
Unfortunately, none of this can bring Trayvon Martin home to his family. They will spend forever wondering what might have been. Did Zimmerman commit a crime according to the letter of Florida state law? I’m really not sure. A presumably well-meaning jury of his peers didn’t think so. What is abundantly clear, however, is this: When George Zimmerman saw the hooded Trayvon Martin walking down the street that dark and rainy night, he immediately identified him as a them. And that distinction ultimately led to the unnecessary loss of a young life.
I recently stumbled upon an article explaining how The Vatican is offering ‘time off purgatory’ for those who follow Pope Francis’ Twitter account. Indulgences, 21st Century style. “Here they go again,” I thought to myself. And in that moment, I felt a cold fear on the back of my neck as I wondered if George Zimmerman and I have more in common than I’d like to admit.
By: Caleb Stanton