Stand-your-ground society a step backward for humans and their big brains

Jacalyn Carfagno
Jacalyn Carfagno

I remember many conversations with my daughter about traffic signals.

The scene will be familiar to most parents. I sat in the driver's seat while a little person, anchored in a car seat, fired questions from the back. It was my challenge to resolve the conflicting demands of driving safely and being a responsive parent.

Loaded with two strands of DNA stamped with "question authority" generations back, she was often annoyed when we had to wait at red lights. This was exacerbated, I'm sure, by the fact that a particularly long light at the primary exit from our neighborhood stopped us almost daily. Many three-minute discussions about civics and traffic engineering resulted.

The bottom line was always this: No one wants to wait at a light; but if no one ever does, then we'll all be stuck in gridlock or killed in traffic. It's a trade-off. You must have faith that some momentary individual inconvenience yields greater long-term convenience, safety and collective good. The traffic flows for all of us.

There is a part of me, I admit, that understands the impulse to run the light, tell government to bug off — just get out of my life. And there have certainly been moments when I might have fantasized about taking someone out who had just jumped on my very last nerve. That DNA is powerful stuff. Fortunately, I survived long enough that my pre-frontal cortex developed sufficiently to consistently override those impulses.

It turns out this isn't just a coincidence. That cortex — our really big brains — is what distinguishes us as humans. Scientists have been trying for years to figure out what exactly we do with our big brains. Turns out we use them to socialize. The most consistent predictor of a species' brain size, they've discovered, is the size of its social group. Crows can make tools, many species live in family groups. We are the only species that makes traffic lights.

This brings me to "stand your ground" laws, which returned to the news last week.

The idea of these laws — the sentiments that motivate them and the behavior they encourage — is that a person who feels threatened has the right to stand his ground, to protect himself, with lethal force if necessary.

At a Senate hearing Tuesday, Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, the black teenager who was shot and killed last year in Florida, pleaded to do away with stand your ground. George Zimmerman, the armed man who fired the fatal shots at the hoodie-wearing Trayvon, convinced a jury he felt genuinely threatened by the unarmed boy and was acquitted.

"This law does not work," Trayvon's mother said.

Tragically it didn't work for her son, and for dozens of others. Despite the lecture at least one senator visited on Trayvon's mother about the value of stand your ground, these laws will never work. They can't work because they are at odds with the very sociability that our big brains enable.

The fundamental concept of rule by law, indeed of living in a civil society, is that we give up some personal freedom and convenience, both for the common good and to enjoy a larger civic freedom — to in effect, broaden our social networks.

The very fact of making laws is a huge social engagement. Through it the group collectively decides what the limits of behavior are — no murder, no stealing cars — and how society will manage itself: collecting taxes, building roads, operating schools, putting people who break the laws in jail, etc.

Whether we like the laws or not, most of the time we comply and we trust that others will. That allows us to spend time talking to our friends, tending gardens and thinking about the Wildcats instead of guarding our property. It allows us to accelerate smoothly when the light turns green.

But stand-your-ground laws upend that compact.

The rule of law at any given moment is determined by one person, the individual who feels threatened. They require us to make a threat evaluation on everyone we encounter, and they on us. Rather than socializing with our neighbors, we erect physical, legal, emotional and even armed barriers to isolate and protect ourselves. Our social networks shrink. Our humanity shrinks.

I'm hesitant to join the league of people predicting a dire future for children yet unborn, but consider the mother driving her daughter to school in a stand-your-ground world.

The drive time serves to train her child on the signs of danger to their pack. Long hair, short hair, hoodies or navy blazers? What about those wreaths on grills at the holidays, do they hide something sinister? It would leave no time for talking about trees or clouds, the day ahead or anything else. Even traffic signals.

Certainly, with such big brains, we can do better than that.