The public outcry we have seen this past week around the shooting of unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has been about more than a pursuit of justice. What we are witnessing is more closely related to the rallies of the Arab Spring, started by the self-immolation of a young shopkeeper in Tunisia whose property was taken and whose government responded not by seeking to right the crime, but rather, by literally smacking him in the face. The public outrage also parallels the protests in America at the end of last year, and the general anger and despair of unemployed Americans who as a result of the financial crash, lost their jobs and savings and now struggle to put food on the table for their families while their government takes little action to reprimand the villains of the crisis.
These movements are connected by a common thread: thumos, the Greek word loosely translated to mean a human being’s fundamental pursuit of dignity and recognition by society. Each case reveals the trampling of an individual’s dignity, their spirit, and the painful realization that the leaders of society, the government in these cases, have failed to protect the most basic rights of their citizens. Unfair actions by peers are hurtful to any human being, but when the sum of society fails to meet expectations of righteousness and grandeur, the revelation that the almighties on Earth are as flawed as the common man is crippling.
Trayvon Martin’s murder demonstrated the sad but far too common combination of debilitating discrimination coupled with a failure of authority to respond justly. Some might argue that race was not a factor in this case, but the truth is that if Trayvon Martin was a white 17 year-old, he would either be alive or George Zimmerman would be in jail. Trayvon was a victim of a populace that has grown too comfortable with profiling and stereotyping and an American society who has become increasingly more focused on the “other” than the “us.”
This ultimately leads to fear, suspicion and contempt towards people that are from a different group, support a different ideology, live a different lifestyle. Unfortunately, these emotions tend to have even greater ramifications. We see this in our justice system around issues of race, where for example, African Americans make up 13.6% of the population but 40.2% of the prison population. We also saw this in the treatment of Muslims following 9/11, where men and women in traditional Islamic dress were profiled in our airports. More recently, we’ve seen the tragic finales of bullying of gay and lesbian youth, who even by the laws of their own government, have been made to feel like second-class citizens. Each of these instances of discrimination between groups is related, and each has diminished the dignity and spirit of the victims who have been on the receiving end of hateful, and sometimes deadly, actions.
We must do more as a society to face hatred and discrimination head on. If left unaddressed, this bigotry will leave a very divided United States and a very fractured world. Whether we are ready to admit it or not, as human beings, we still carry the sin of prejudice, but society should not. Mohamed Bouazizi’s death in Tunisia sprung a movement that ended in the downfall of several dictators across the Middle East. The terrible suicides of several LGBT teenagers launched a public campaign and conversation on bullying in America. The Occupy protests are still ongoing, but they have initiated a serious discussion on the division of wealth in America. And now, the marches and movement following Trayvon Martin’s murder will hopefully not just result in the arrest of his killer, but also rekindle our nation’s work to build a more perfect union.
It’s a shame that it takes a tragedy to wake the masses, and it’s a tragedy that it takes the masses to force our leaders to do what is right. I am comforted by the scenes we have witnessed over the past week. The movement of many demanding a just response to an unjust action is at the core of our humanity. We now have even greater tools to connect, share and mobilize, and we must use our resources to act in the face of wrong and advance in the direction of what is right. And when justice or freedom or basic human dignity is denied to any of our fellow citizens in any corner of the world, then we must all work together to demand that it be respected and restored immediately.