Note: racism is morally wrong and a young African-American man should absolutely without question be able to buy some candy without being, as the narrative holds, “hunted down and murdered by an angry white racist”. However, Greta Christina has misunderstood the legal situation and this post examines some of her errors. For a short summary of the main points, scroll down to “Conclusion”.
I have discussed the problems surrounding selective skepticism many times before on this blog. It can arise in the context of Nobel Prize winners having their rational thinking undermined by pseudoscience. It can occur when evolutionary biologists start making claims about the validity of an entire field for which their knowledge and understanding is, to put it charitably, limited. It has happened when the political beliefs of some skeptics contaminate their view of the skeptical movement. However, there are some ways for skeptics to attempt to limit impact of selective rationality and groupthink, even thought it often seems difficult.
When I use the term selective skepticism, I am referring to the following broad themes: (1) skeptics who are rational in many other areas (e. g. accept that evolution is a fact, accept that vaccines are generally safe and effective, reject HIV/AIDS denialism, accept global warming etc.), but remarkably fail to reach the same level of rationality in another field, (2) applying little or no skepticism to evidence that appears to support their personal belief and apply extreme skepticism to evidence that seem to run counter to those beliefs.
I continue to be fascinating by examining new case studies of selective skepticism that occur among well-known members of the skeptical community. In this post, I will be examining Greta Christina’s reactions to the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial. The two main reactions that this post will focus on is a tweet by Christina and a subsequent blog post were she elaborates on her position.
Important background information
Before we go into the details of this case study, let us go to great lengths to avoid misunderstandings. That way we can focus on the topic itself without needing to spend a lot of effort on unproductive and dead-end derailings of the conversation.
racism, like any kind of group discrimination, is morally wrong. Furthermore, racists and race realists often use pseudoscience to prop up their flawed beliefs. This has been demonstrated in many posts on this blog (here, here, here, here and here etc.) and there is even an entire blog category on Debunking Denialism dedicated to refuting racists and race realists.
: many scientific studies have exposed various biases in different legal systems around the world. Judges are more likely to grant probation if they review the case after lunch than before (Danziger, Levav and Avnaim-Pesso, 2011). When using visual courtroom technology, witnesses are considered more credible the more spatially and temporally closer they are to the evaluators and witnesses filmed using a medium shot are evaluated as more credible than those film using a close-up shot (Landström, 2010). If a person is convicted of murdering a European-American, that person is more likely to be given the death penalty than if the victim had been an African-American (Baldus et. al, 1998) and that study controlled for almost 40 possible non-race confounders. The more stereotypical an American-American defendant appears to be, the higher the risk of that person getting the death penalty (Eberhardt et al., 2006). Swedish researchers, using vignette scenarios, have shown that men are considered more provocative in the aggressor position and more responsible for their own victimization in the victim position (Lindholm and Yourstone Cederwall, 2011). This is attributed by the researchers to gender stereotypes of men as being powerful and aggressive and women being weak and unable to defend themselves. This was just a few examples, and others exist.
the legal system in the U. S. require that the prosecution in a murder case prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a defendant is guilty for a conviction. Thus, it is not enough to find rare inconsistencies in the defendant’s story or find some aspect of the case that cannot be explained (such anomaly hunting is typical of pseudoscience). It is not enough to show that reasonable doubt regarding the truth of the defendant’s story exists, they have to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that the defendant’s story is false. It is also not enough to find some alleged morally objectionable personal characteristic of the defendant. Even people who have at some point behaved morally objectionably has the right to a fair trial.
these three concepts are very different and answer different questions (although they overlap). Reality is about what actually happened, morality is about whether or not it was wrong and legality is about what can be proven beyond all reasonable doubt in court. Questions about whether Zimmerman was morally justified in taking certain actions, such as getting out of his car, following after someone etc. (although interesting in their own right) are unrelated to the legal question of “could the prosecution put forward enough evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that it was not self-defense?”. Thus, there is no contradiction between holding that Zimmerman acted morally wrong in taking certain actions yet accepting that not enough evidence was presented to exclude the existence of reasonable doubt.
Examining Greta Christina’s reactions to the Zimmerman verdict
The rest of this post will be concerned with critically examining certain aspects of Greta Christina’s reaction: her ignorance about key facts of the case, her ignorance about the difference between legality and morality, her excessive usage of misleading and emotionally charged language, her rejection of the presumption of innocence, her belief that reasonable doubt does not matter, her unwillingness to consider reasoned criticism and her ideological insulation as well as the great irony of her comments about what freethought means.
Greta Christina uses misleading and emotionally charged language
Throughout her post, Christina uses value-laden phrases such as “hunted down” instead of “followed” and “killed for crime of being a black man” instead of “killed following a violent struggle”. Those are not outliers, because she specifically uses the term “hunt” three times in her post.
This suggests that Christina is not interested in a dispassionate and disinterested considerations of facts. Instead, she has bought into a cultural narrative without critical appraisal and is now trying to spread it to others. She is unable to maintain emotional distance to the case and her writings can therefore not be considered a credible.
Greta Christina rejects the presumption of innocence and reasonable doubt
The reason that the presumption of innocence (you are considered “innocent until proven guilty”) exists is because a defendant should not require to prove his or her own innocence. This principle is so important that it has been made part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. Article 11 states unequivocally that:
Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.
The reason that “proof beyond reasonable doubt” exists when it comes to e. g. murder trials is that the evidence for conviction needs to be high because if it is lower, than the impact of falsely convincing an innocent person is considered to be unacceptable.
The legal question of the case was, roughly, could the prosecution present sufficient evidence to rule out reasonable doubt. Could they prove beyond any reasonable doubt that it was not self-defense? They appeared to not accomplish this, which meant that Zimmerman was acquitted from the charges.
Christina calls this verdict “a grotesque travesty of justice”.
This indicates that she thinks that people should be convicted despite the legal case not being proven beyond all reasonable doubt (or that she simply does not understand the legal situation). The fact that she has apparently bought into the cultural narrative regarding Zimmerman (i.e. that Zimmerman had a systematic hatred of African-Americans, that he hunted down and shot Martin who did not do anything besides buying candy) suggests that she also rejects the presumption of innocence. She has convicted Zimmerman beforehand.
Thus, Greta Christina appears to rejects two fundamental legal principles, one of which is considered important enough to be considered a fundamental human right by the U. N. This calls into question the intellectual honesty of her self-described “moral obligation” to make the world a better place.
Greta Christina only has a partial understanding freethought
Somehow, she must rationalize her decision to ban everyone who disagrees with her on the Zimmerman case. She accomplishes this by polarizing the issue and stating that the Zimmerman case is not an issue “worthy of calm, considered debate, issues on which people can reasonably disagree and still be friends” and insinuating that critics have “morally repugnant ideas”.
Christina is correct when she explains that:
I am sick to fucking death of the idea that “freethought” means “we have to treat all ideas as worthy of consideration, and debate them calmly and without anger, and treat people we disagree with respectfully.” Some ideas are morally repugnant. It is not antithetical to freethought to respond to morally repugnant ideas with rage. It is not antithetical to freethought to tell people with morally repugnant ideas that their ideas are morally repugnant, and that you will have nothing to do with them.
Yes, some ideas are morally repugnant. Yes, it is reasonable respond to morally repugnant ideas with rage. Yes, it is reasonable to block people who are morally repugnant. Yes, that does not contradict freethought. Yes, a young African-American man should be able to buy some candy without being hunted down and murdered by an angry white racist. That is self-evident for all reasonable people.
However, as will be shown below, this is not an accurate description of the legal case and the Zimmerman trial is an issue that is “worthy of calm, considered debate”. Using the “freethought does not mean we have to treat all ideas as worthy of consideration, and debate them calmly and without anger” approach is, while true in the general sense, highly problematic in this case. This is because Christina has completely misunderstood the legal issue.
The legal issue here is not “should a young African-American man should be able to buy some candy without being hunted down and murdered by an angry white racist?”, but “could the prosecuting prove beyond all reasonable doubt that it was not self-defense?”
Greta Christina is unwilling to consider reasonable criticism
In her post, she writes that if readers have “anything at all to say about this that even remotely hints at implying that what George Zimmerman did was remotely defensible, or that this verdict was anything short of grotesque”, she will ban them. She does ban at least two people who did the thankless job of trying to calmly reason with her. Those two comments were polite and presented arguments without any racism or gratuitous verbal abuse. Yet she banned them anyways.
Christina is fully within her right to ban whoever she wants. She is also has no moral obligation to interact with people she does not want to interact with. However, her actions demonstrate that she is unwilling to consider reasonable criticisms. This is also evident by the fact that she just links to blog posts that share her questionable interpretations of the case and acquittal, despite the fact that other bloggers on FreethoughtBlogs who share her overarching positions have gone to great lengths to explain the legal issues in the Zimmerman trial.
By cutting off people who attempt to politely reason with her, she is making her self insulated against criticism. In fact, the entire situation has several symptoms in common with groupthink: stereotypes of outgroups (calling any legal criticism of her beliefs “morally repugnant”), collective rationalization (e. g. the manufacturing of justifications to exclude opposing evidence and viewpoints), incomplete survey of alternatives / poor information search (she does not seem to have accessed enough information to understand the legal decision), selective information processing / the existence of mindguards (she only presents information and links that support her position), defective decision-making (her rejection of fundamental human rights).
In defense of Greta Christina: the existence of mitigating factors
It would be a mistake to automatically dismiss Greta Christina as a naive and irrational pawn. She is a prolific writer on issues such as LGBT rights and sex-positivity and many of her talks on these issues are very valuable.
I can imagine at least four different mitigating factors that could help to explain her behavior: (1) she attended the memorial of her father and scattered his ashes around the same time as the verdict came in (see the post linked in the intro to this post), (2) she has a history of clinical depression (see e. g. here), a mental condition which is known to be related to emotional dysregulation, (3) the cultural narrative of Zimmerman as a violent racist who hunted killed an African-American candy-buying child fits snuggly with her overall worldview as a devoted social justice advocate, (4) her poor information-gathering and incomplete survey of alternatives made it difficult for contrary facts to reach her.
The first two mitigating factors might have contributed to placing her in an emotional state that facilitating her reaction to the Zimmerman verdict. The latter two mitigating factors could have made it more difficult for arguments, evidence and considerations that run counter to her position to sink in and permeate her mind.
These mitigation factors may explain her reactions, but does not justify her errors of reasoning.
Racism is morally wrong and well-documented scientific evidence shows that the legal system is racially biased against African-Americans. The presumption of innocence and requirement to prove the prosecutor’s case “beyond any reasonable doubt” are fundamental legal principles and the former is even classified as a human right according to the United Nations.
A young African-American man should absolutely without question be able to buy some candy without being hunted down and murdered by an angry white racist. However, that was not the legal question under consideration. That legal question was, roughly, “could the prosecution provide sufficient evidence to prove, beyond all reasonable doubt, that it was not self-defense?”.
In her treatment of the Zimmerman verdict, Greta Christina used misleading and emotionally charged language, her line of reasoning indicates that she rejects the presumption of innocence and the requirement for proof beyond all reasonable doubt. That means that she actually believes that some people should be convicted in the absence of sufficient evidence. The alternative is that she did not have sufficient understanding of the legal situation (although these two options are not strictly mutually exclusive).
In an extreme case of selective skepticism, Christina is unwilling to consider reasonable objections and have insulated herself against criticism by banning anyone who politely and reasonably disagrees. However, some mitigating factors may exist, such as her clinical depression, the fact that she just had attended her fathers memorial, her prior beliefs about social justice issues and her poor information-gathering.
Baldus, D. C., Woodworth, G., Zuckerman, D. Weiner, N. A., Broffitt, B. (1998). Racial discrimination and the death penalty in the post-Furman era: an empirical and legal overview, with recent findings from Philadelphia. Cornell Law Review, 83: 1638-1770
Danziger, S., Levav, J., Avnaim-Pesso, L. (2011). Extraneous factors in judicial decisions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(17), 6889-6892.
Eberhardt, Jennifer L., Davies, Paul G., Purdie-Vaughns, Valerie J., & Johnson, Sheri Lynn. (2006). Looking Deathworthy: Perceived Stereotypicality of Black Defendants Predicts Capital-Sentencing Outcomes. Psychological Science, 17(5), 383-386.
Landström, Sara. (2011). Psycho-legal aspects of visual courtroom technology. In P. A. Granhag (Ed.), Forensic Psychology in Context: Nordic and International Approaches. Portland, U. S. A.: William Publishing.
Lindholm, Torun, & Cederwall, Jenny Yourstone. (2011). Ethnicity and gender biases in the courtroom. In P. A. Granhag (Ed.), Forensic Psychology in Context: Nordic and International Approaches. Portland, U. S. A. : William Publishing.