July 22, 2013

Emotional Mastery Series #7

  • What is an Emotions (#1, 2 & 3)
  • Pseudo-Emotions (#4)
  • Emotional Continua (#5)
  • Emotional Tolerance (#6)
  • When Emotions are Distorted (#7)


This may be controversial, well, in fact, I’m sure it will be controversial. Yet given the exaggerated coverage of Murder Trial of George Zimerman by the US media, I thought I’d use it to write about emotions and emotional mastery.

The George Zimerman case has been in the news here in the USA for many months and in the past month has absolutely dominated the news. CNN covered it as if there was no another thing happening on the planet. They devoted hours and hours to it every day especially during the three week trial that finally occurred in Florida. Then last week, after all the evidence was presented, the jury of 6 women deliberated 16 hours and found him “not guilty.” Normally that would be the end of things. But in this case, it has not ended.

Now it has been fascinating to listen to the pros and cons of the actual evidence that Mr. Zimerman, a neighborhood watchman who reported a young man acting suspicious, and who followed him to see what he was doing, and then there was a four minute hiatus and then suddenly there was a confrontation, of which Zimerman got the worse. A witness reported him on the ground and the other person on top and beating him (which accorded to the injuries that he came away with); later he testified that he head was being slammed against the concrete sidewalk (which his injuries also indicated), and fearing that he would go unconscious and so fearing for his life, he shot the young man, Trayvon Martin, and the single shot just so happened to deliver a fatal blow so that he ended up dead.

Why then is the situation not over? My opinion is that it is mostly because of the media and in particular, how the media framed it. While Zimerman is Hispanic and Martin was Black, the media (esp. NBC) presented it as a racial white-on-black crime. The media also presented it as “racial profiling” which all the evidence has failed to substantiate. Then there are all the people emotionalizing the situation and that’s what I want to address.

Apart from what happened that rainy night in early 2012, and all of the emotions that naturally arise when there’s that kind of conflict and fight and death, there have been lots of “playing on emotions” and “amplifying emotions” to make a whole lot more of the situation than is warranted. About emotions-it is very sad that any young man of 17 years of age was killed. That’s a big loss to his parents, family, and friends. And when there is that kind of tragic loss, there will be sadness and grief.

Other emotions: When a community suffers a crime spree and those discovered were young men, it makes sense that someone commissioned as a neighborhood watchman would be on the alert and could easily over-react. It also makes sense that a young man who thinks he is being followed by someone in authority might feel under threat and, as it is with young men, one might be quick to get into an altercation that might degenerate into a fist fight and brawl and then something worse might happened. As it did in this case. These fight-flight emotions are human emotions and normal, and unless managed well, can be dangerous.

Is it really any surprise about the emotions evoked given such events on a dark rainy wintery night? Fear, anger, apprehension, surprise, etc. All of that is normal enough and strong enough to evoke strong reactions. What’s made it much worse is the way others have framed things that amplify the emotions, play off the emotions, and exaggerate the emotions. How have they done that? By giving too much meaning and distorted meaning to the events.

Some immediately made it about “race.” NBC news actually altered the 911 call from Zimerman and distorted it in such a way as to give the impression that he was “racially profiling” Martin. Later they acknowledged the distortion, and apologized, but by then it was too late. The damage had been done. Emotions of anger, rage, outrage, injustice, etc. were now in play and arousing people to watch “justice” and revenge.

Even the President got involved and made statements that “fan the fire” of the racial conflict and hatred saying such things as, “If I had a son he would look like Trayvon” and “35 years ago I would have been Trayvon.” That kind of personalizing, which maybe he wanted people to understand the Black experience, tended to make things worse- much worse. Instead of calming the situation and being a leader to the whole nation, he promoted one side of a local issue. For me, this showed his incompetence as a leader. He was not rising above it and providing a unifying perspective.

What has been and continues to amplify and distort the emotions of thousands of people about this situation is the either/or thinking, the exaggeration, the tunnel-vision perspectives, and the jumping to conclusions. These cognitive distortions inevitably distort the meaning that we give to things and will amplify emotions.

If you are reading any of the news about this, you will read that some people have taken a tunnel vision view about the “stand your ground” law in Florida. Interesting enough, though, that law was never brought into the trial and had nothing to do with the verdict. But now there are rallies in dozens of cities wanting to get rid of those laws.

Another tunnel vision point of view is that of “profiling.” To listen to some people, profiling is the worst evil on the planet. But if there a crime spree and those involved are consistently young men, then seeing a young man sauntering along on a rainy night “acting suspicious” is precisely what a watchman would and should look out for. It’s a matter of probability. Someone not walking fast when it’s rainy and who doesn’t stay on the sidewalk, and who looks like he’s looking into windows – that’s a curious thing that should be checked into, shouldn’t it? Why would someone ignore that sign? That has nothing to do with race, that’s about behavior. And behavior is precisely what we can profile.

Now about “race,” it has been noted scores and scores of time that 93% of all shootings and deaths of young black men in the USA is by young black men. It’s called black-on-black crime and apparently Chicago is the nation’s worst city for this. And according to one news report that I saw, during the trial of Zimerman, 8 young (16 to 19 year old black youth) were shot in Chicago and not one of them got any national attention. Why is that? Why does the media seem to think that the only “news worthy” news is when it is white on black or hispanic on black or something other mixture? What’s with that? And why do those who are supposedly the leaders in the Black community not raising their voices about that?

Here is a situation where emotions have raged and become exaggerated and have led to all kinds of additional hurtful actions. And why? The meaning given to the events. The events have been semantically over-loaded so as to agitate, anger, frustrate, and elicit more hate, especially racial hatred.

And what about emotional mastery? What’s needed to bring some emotional calmness, respect, thoughtfulness, etc. into the situation? Better meanings.

  • First we need to stop jumping to conclusions based on inadequate information. We need to calmly and patiently keep asking for the facts of the case and not assume guilt or injustice or whatever until the facts are in.
  • Second, we need to not interpret one instance between two individuals as representative of whole groups of people. That kind of over-generalizing leads to stereotyping and abstracting that semantically over-loads the situation.
  • Third, we need to keep contextualizing the when, where, who, what, etc. facts of the case so that we don’t take it out of context and distort the meaning. Keeping our emotional cool is challenging enough. Keeping it when there’s been a tragic loss of life is even more challenging. But it can be done. We can express our sympathy and concern to those who have suffered loss and we can withhold judgment and blame from others until we get the facts. And when in the course of things, a selected jury has made a decision, we can accept it because we live in a land that’s based on the law, not enraged emotions.

What makes democracy wonderful is not that we have to agree everything that happens, we do not. But we do need to be respectful of each other and as calmly and respectfully as possible ask tough questions without being insulting. If we could do  that, if we could demonstrate that level of emotional mastery- we could solve the real problems and avoid creating unnecessary ones.

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.