He just couldn’t stay out of the news. Four years after making national headlines for killing Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teen in Sanford, Florida, George Zimmerman is once again a subject of conversation — this time, for trying to auction off the gun he used in the infamous slaying. Zimmerman killed Martin while “patrolling” his neighborhood, though not as a police officer. He was self-appointed, self-armed, self-directed. He had been told to stand down and wait for the police to arrive when he called in the “suspicious looking” Trayvon, but he did not submit to this command. He is not a man who submits or stands down.
It might be worth asking why. Can we explain Zimmerman’s aggressive behavior in this and subsequent incidences of road rage and domestic violence simply as a matter of personal pathology? Perhaps. Then again, pathology might be a little too convenient an explanation, one that lets a broader social factor off the hook. There might be more to this story that involves many other people and loops them into his world, connecting them through a “cultural syndrome” known to social scientists as an honor culture.
Honor cultures are human societies that put excessive emphasis on the defense of reputation. Men in an honor culture want to build and defend a reputation for toughness, bravery, and intolerance for disrespect. More than toughness, women in an honor culture typically want to build and defend a reputation for loyalty and sexual chastity. People in an honor culture will do just about anything to defend their reputations, along with their property, person, and “honor circle.” The ideology of honor connects groups from cowboys to Klingons to Afghani warlords. Its power fueled ancient myths about the pursuit of glory or righteous retribution (think Gilgamesh and The Odyssey), compelled kings and presidents to go to war (think Xerxes and George W. Bush), and remains a thematic staple of popular Hollywood films (think The Godfather and Braveheart).
Although the conditions that birthed it have long since disappeared, the honor culture of the southern Scots traveled to America in the 17th and 18th centuries and rooted itself in the social fabric of the American South (and to a lesser extent, the West), a phenomenon detailed by the Pulitzer Prize winning historian David H. Fischer in Albion’s Seed. Fischer writes, “This [migration of southern Scots] was truly a mass migration, on a scale altogether different from the movements that had preceded it” (Albion’s Seed, p. 606). Referencing the honor-clad attitude of these Scottish immigrants, Fischer notes, “Even in their poverty they carried themselves with a fierce and stubborn pride that warned others to treat them with respect” (ibid.). We can still see some of the consequences of this particular honor culture in elements of southern life today, according to research by social scientists Dov Cohen and Richard Nisbett, including elevated rates of argument-based homicides, enhanced sensitivity to insults, and the acceptance of violence to restore threatened honor among southern white men, compared to their Northern counterparts. As a result of these and other patterns of social behavior, states in the U.S. South and West are generally considered to be “honor states,” just as some countries around the world are considered to be honor nations (such as those in southern Europe and northern Africa, or throughout the Middle East or Latin America).
In the wake of George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin, social scientists have examined the impact of the now-infamous stand-your-ground laws that a number of states have adopted, including the state of Florida. Stand-Your-Ground laws extend the so-called “castle doctrine”—the notion that people’s homes are their castles, where intruders can be rebuffed by deadly force, if necessary—to any place where a person has a legal right to be. Thus, these laws free citizens from the obligation to retreat when they feel their lives are at risk. They are allowed, instead, to stand their ground, a normative principle that featured in George Zimmerman’s defense. Of the 19 states in the U.S. with stand-your-ground laws on the books when Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, 14 of these states (74%) were honor states in the South and West. Studies show that after these laws are put into place, the homicide rate actually increases.
One of these studies, by Chandler McClellan and Erdal Tekin of the University of Georgia, is particularly noteworthy because it examines the impact of stand-your-ground laws by race and gender. Their analysis revealed that after states have enacted such laws, the homicide rate increases, but only among white males. They found no evidence of an increase among black males. Thus, when white men in honor states are allowed by law not to back down when threatened, they don’t. This legal allowance underscores and reinforces the social expectation not to back down when you feel your honor is being threatened. Is anyone really surprised that in such an environment, more people get killed?
Gun laws, likewise, are more permissive in honor states than they are in other states, which helps to explain why more people living in honor states own guns. This legal permissiveness coincides with the views of people in honor states regarding the justifiability of lethal force in protecting one’s family, one’s property, and one’s person. Legislative sympathy toward defense-related violence thus seems to be an extension of the cultural expectation that men, in particular, should be willing, able, and equipped to defend themselves and their families without having to rely on the authorities to take care of matters. When that pivotal moment comes, when a man is challenged by another man, or when his interests are otherwise threatened, he is allowed to stand his ground. Indeed, his culture tells him that he is expected to stand his ground. To do otherwise is to be considered a coward, the worst thing a man can be called in an honor culture.
I would suggest that if we want to understand George Zimmerman, we ought to consider not just his personal pathologies, but the ways in which his culture might have programmed him to be the kind of man he has shown himself to be. The cultural ideology of honor reaches into the daily lives of millions of Americans, as well as people all around the world, and it moves and shapes and animates them in powerful ways. It tells them what it takes to be a person worthy of respect, and it teaches them that this same respect can be lost forever in an act of dishonor. It motivates them to pursue honor and defend it at all costs. It compels them not to back down, even when they are in the wrong, as backing down might signal weakness or cowardice. And in an honor culture, those are signals that must never be sent.