George Zimmerman, Propriety, and Losing Way

Got up this morning and began looking through the reactions about the George Zimmerman acquittal. As usual, Charles P. Pierce over at Esquire magazine’s Politics Blog caught my eye…

Thought experiments are useless now. Of course, if the races of the two participants were reversed, Trayvon Martin already would have been doing time. Of course, black kids have to walk through a world in which how they’re dressed is evidence against them, and how they behave when profiled by sanctioned (and manifestly incompetent) quasi-vigilantes is different from how all the rest of us are entitled to behave….

And, of course, this was not about race because nothing is ever about race. The prosecutors even told us that it wasn’t about race. The defense won its case because this was not about race. The sharp guys and pundits will spend all weekend explaining how race was an element of the events that night, but that the case, ultimately, was not about race…

I want to suggest that it is not fundamentally about race because race is itself not about race. Yes… there is a lot of racism in America. It has never waned. But this is not about race unless we can only see racism as a cause rather than an effect [1]

At the ground of our society, we have been a people out of sync with any notion of authentic human excellence or virtue–what the Greeks called ARETE and the Chinese called DE. Racism is one of many symptoms of this dis-ease.

Last night, after the verdict was returned, I engaged in some back and forth with a colleague who is a professor down at Texas A & M. Like many, she was baffled by the verdict. But her bafflement and that of others was even more pronounced as she pondered how Zimmerman was given a walk while a woman—Marissa Alexander—was given twenty years. Ms. Alexander did not even kill someone but only shot at a wall. There are many reasons why a judge determined that this woman was not standing her ground while a different judge thought Zimmerman might have been. Among the surface reasons is her race: she is African-American.

But again, I propose that racism—a rationalization from evidence on the surface—is in fact part of the surface symptoms of our greater sickness.

From last night through this morning, my mind returns again and again to the 38th poem of the Dao de Jing. The opening contemplation of Laozi’s elucidation of inauthentic behaviors, this poem describes what happens when folks lose the Way (Dao). There is existential slippage:

Thus, lose the Great Way (DAO)
then comes excellence (DE).
Lose excellence,
then comes benevolence.
Lose benevolence,
then comes righteousness.
Lose righteousness,
then comes propriety.

Basically, what he describes is how in every succeeding generation after we lose the Way, it becomes more improbable that we can be virtuous. So we do our best with what we are still able to do: if we can have some greatness of soul or benevolence, we do this. If not, we will at least try to exhibit justice or righteousness. That becoming unlikely, we take up the ritualistic attitudes of propriety.

I submit that we have been living in a society of mere propriety for a very, very, very long time. Laozi says that what qualifies the state of propriety is how easily insulted the person of that mindset becomes and how easily that sense of insult leads to violence:

propriety takes
offense at improper
response, ready to
roll up the sleeves.

When the response is not the ritual one demanded, prepare for a fight.

I further submit that when you look around our society—from neighborhood to Congress—you will see that ritual propriety is the order of the day. That is why civil discourse has become all but impossible. What you can talk about in the mode of righteousness or of benevolence, you cannot expect to even broach in the state of propriety. What you can accomplish in the mindset of excellence you cannot even imagine from the viewpoint of propriety.

Thus, we live in a place where a boy raped with a pencil by older youths finds his family moving out of town because the township festers over how the boy’s father did not follow the key rule of propriety–we take care of our own problems—but brought in outsiders (the police who promptly arrested the torturers).

We live in a place where a young woman who was raped by a classmate finds herself harassed by school officials because she refuses to follow the rituals of her cheerleading activity—always cheer for our team against the other guys no matter what, always cheer the star player even when he is the one that raped you.

We live in a place where an adult can violently engage a youth because the youth is not in his proper place, in the view of the adult, and then, after the violent engagement ends in the death of the youth, we can follow the rituals of law wherein that adult can be acquitted in a criminal court of any wrongdoing.

We live in a place where the propriety of gun ownership takes precedence over the Way of Life.

Trayvon Martin died out of skewed propriety and his life became a sacrifice to the ritual of law. But more importantly, his image has been made an co-ikon with George Zimmerman’s in the news media’s relentless hyping of the Society of Propriety.

What can we do to detach that poor young man from this sickening circus and let his young soul go on the Way?

Is all of our concern for that poor young man an authentic concern for the singularity of his being, for his possible Existenz?

Or is all of this concern our own show of righteousness and our own insulted sense of propriety?

Brothers and sisters of the Ether, I submit to you that all of the uncivil discourse, racism, homophobia, misogyny, and violence that permeate our culture bears witness to a people off the Way.

Being consumed with propriety, we are blinded to righteousness.

Blinded to righteousness, we are deaf to benevolence.

Deaf to benevolence, we cannot excel at life.

Unable to excel at life, we cannot discover the Way.

I know that many of us are trying to find the Way. Moreover, I recognize that there are many who are most excellent or who demonstrate authentic benevolence.

Certainly, a great many of us declaim and decry for the life of Trayvon Martin. A mass of folks calls out in harmony with the youth’s own blood that Justice must be served.

Yet this is the problem: we keep trying to do what the Way does, we continue doing and doing and doing.

One thing leads to another; this reaction is met with more reaction. Concerned with the show of righteousness and consumed with mere propriety, we constantly try to correct the World.

How do we stop trying?

How do we let-go of reactivity?


[1]  I added this sentence on racism as an effect of a deeper problem than a cause in itself after I realized my meaning was not totally clear. Edit made at 2:40pm Central Time, 14 July 2013.


  1. IMO this case was decided before it ever went to trial. I also believe the Martin family would have been ahead if the father had been the one to identify the son’s voice instead of the mother. The hardest part of all is that our country has come to the point where neighborhoods believe they need ‘watch programs.’ I don’t dispute the need – but I also remember a time when we were free to come and go without worrying about our safety. Many issues played into this trial and the emotions brought to this small Florida courtroom were bound to fail all parties concerned.

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