“One can prove or refute anything at all with words,” wrote Anton Chekhov in the short story “Lights.” “Soon people will perfect language technology to such an extent that they’ll be proving with mathematical precision that twice two is seven.”
In the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black youth killed by an overzealous neighborhood vigilante, the “language technology” being employed to portray the victim as the aggressor builds on words like “hoodie” and “marijuana”—and the most malleable linguistic alloy of all, silence.
The hoodie Martin wore on the rainy night of his murder earned the ire of his stalker, 28-year-old George Zimmerman, who deemed it “suspicious.” Conservative commentators have defended that judgment. Geraldo Rivera asserted on Fox & Friends (3/23/12) that Martin’s choice to don a hoodie was “as much responsible” for Martin’s death as the man who shot and killed him. In a non-apology days later (Fox News Latino, 3/30/12), Rivera pitied himself for being attacked for his remarks and defended his assertion that “minority male[s] over the age of 15” who wear a hoodie should expect to get shot.
Others looking to strip sympathy for Martin have been quick to note that he was suspended from school for carrying a bag that contained traces of marijuana, as reported by MSNBC, Fox and ABC (3/26/12). That an American teenager was carrying residue of a popular recreational drug should surprise no one, let alone be dredged up as an index of his character.
That finding was nothing, however, compared to the hacking of Martin’s online accounts by a Klan sympathizer who changed the account passwords to racial slurs (Huffington Post, 3/30/12). The hacker selected and arranged some of Martin’s alleged tweets and posts to depict him as a druggie, and mockingly sniped at “liberals” for sympathizing with Martin on a popular Internet message board. That incident followed earlier tweets discovered and posted by the editor of the conservative site Daily Caller (3/26/12).
Racially driven besmirching of Martin’s name has coincided with feigned indignation at suggestions that race may have been a factor in the shooting. Sensing opportunity in President Barack Obama’s remark that if he had a son “he would look like Trayvon,” Newt Gingrich lambasted Obama, saying, “Is the president suggesting if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK because it wouldn’t look like him?” That comment was recycled by conservative outlets such as World Net Daily (3/24/12).
Also reprising the traditional role of reflexively defending whites was Bernie Goldberg, who complained on the O’Reilly Factor (3/26/12) that the media commotion would have been avoided if only the shooter were black. The most flagrant display of this reflexiveness appeared in the Daily Texan (3/28/12), the University of Texas student newspaper, in the form of a satirical cartoon in which a mother narrates to her child, “And then...the big bad white man killed the handsome sweet innocent colored boy!!”
As for Zimmerman’s glaring flaws, right-leaning outlets have remained largely silent. The New York Daily News (3/29/12) reported that his temper cost him a job as a security guard. A coworker described Zimmerman as “Jekyll and Hyde” who flew into a “rage” during a minor incident, flinging a woman and twisting her ankle.
Rage seemed to be a recurring problem for Zimmerman; the Orlando Sentinel (3/21/12) reported that his ex-fiancee filed charges against him in 2005, asserting that he became physically and sexually abusive. That same year, he was also charged with third-degree felonies for confronting the police; the charge was waived contingent upon his entry into an alcohol education program (MSNBC, 3/27/12).
But media ire and scrutiny tend to focus on Martin—or, in some cases, on his supporters. Time columnist Joe Klein (4/9/12), denouncing “racialist politics,” lamented the involvement of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton—who are “looking for camera time” and “acting as racial ringmasters.” In reality, they serve as unwelcome and persistent reminders of a pre-post-racial era that is in no danger whatsoever of being “transcended.”
In short, don’t expect to find much mention of a shooter’s damning history in outlets that have taken up the heroic task of smearing a dead unarmed boy, and do expect the salience of racism to be dismissed. After all, “language technology” may be powerful, but what good is it if it proves that twice two is four?