We’ve witnessed something bizarre in our age. Since 1990 or so, we are the first generation that has the ability to watch just about any major event as it unfolds, anywhere in the world. This in and of itself is not a bad thing. What makes it disturbing is when anyone with a TV, computer, or smartphone feels they should be able to cast a vote and decide the fate of men and nations.
I’ve never commented on the Zimmerman trial, nor will I now. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t selected for the jury. My only knowledge of the case comes from what the media is willing to share with me. This and other high-profile cases prove the genius of the founding fathers and all those who provided them with the theory that led to a free republic. Trials are to be conducted by a jury of the accused’s peers. Facts are presented. Decisions are made. Are wrong decisions delivered? All the time. Is there a possibility for a better system? No. The “posse” mentality of the general public is exactly why we have the legal system we do. It was no different in the 18th century. But now millions of people can form a posse.
That is something we, as a culture, should fear. And it is something a 21st century writer should be hyper-sensitive to.
It is no longer possible to put someone on trial, engage in war, introduce legislation, or–if you’re a celebrity–go on a date without drawing the opinions of millions of people. Most of those with opinions are harmless. A few are not.
I say this not to point out the overriding sense of barbarism in our society. We’re well aware that men like George Zimmerman will always be found guilty or not by facebook poll long before a jury is selected. We all found OJ Simpson guilty as well. Both men are free now. Can either live a normal life again? Probably not. OJ is OJ, so he already has the issue of his celebrity status. Zimmerman will never be able to take a walk in his city again without fear of retaliation.
Trial by facebook is something we must consider when we use our fiction to mirror the state of our society. The drama–more importantly the tension–doesn’t begin and end in the courtroom or battlefield. Public opinion has changed world events before mass media. Ask any Army General. Politics will always play a role in our decision making. It was true in years past. It’s hit warp speed today.
A good writer recognizes that. If you’re going to tackle a story that involves public opinion, you’ve got a goldmine of tension waiting at your fingertips. If your character is on trial for the rape or murder of a little girl, most of the drama is happening outside the courtroom. If he’s found innocent, society is not so quick to forgive.
We all recognize that. But what about a case like Zimmerman’s? In reality, this story is trivial. A man shoots another man who he suspected was up to no good. Or, if you believe a few grandstanders on TV, one man shoots another because of the color of his skin. Even then, it happens all the time. Racially motivated crimes are a daily event. And it’s doubtful we’ll ever change that, no matter how many “hate crime” laws are put into effect.
So why did this event hit the national scene? One more death in a nation of three-hundred million people. And this one may spark riots and more deaths. Again, this is more a study in human behavior for the purposes of a writer. There’s plenty of soap boxes out there. I’ll leave mine in the closet.
When you write your novel, consider the wider implications of your story. Can your “little” crime blow way out of proportion? Can one well-placed tweet in chapter 3 result in all hell breaking loose? Society’s horrific problem with trial by facebook is the writer’s dream world. As awful as that sounds, it’s what we do. We magnify the worst the world has to offer. Our first priority is to sell a good novel.
Like any artist, though, we always dream of changing the world, or at least invite a little conversation. It is quite possible–likely, I may argue–that it is the artist and writer who has quelled the tide of violence throughout history. Someone right now (probably Jodi Picoult) is drafting a plot remarkably similar to the Zimmerman trial and highlighting the irrational behavior from both sides of the issue. We’ll read about ourselves in a fictional sense and realize that perhaps we were a bit rash in that facebook post. Maybe we’ll remember when an incident like this happens again. One can hope. Go get ’em, Jodi.
As I write this, Zimmerman’s story is just beginning. I pray for peace. I continue to pray for justice. I pray that our nation will realize that we have a God who will bring about perfect justice in the end. For each of us.