March 13, 2016

Freethought, Tribalism, and O.J. Simpson

O.J. Simpson 1990 · DN-ST-91-03444 crop
I have been watching The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story on FX. No, I'm not particularly proud of this. I started watching a few weeks into the show, making sure to start from the beginning, after a couple of my co-workers convinced me that I just had to see it. And now I'm hooked. Sad but true. While I am not at all convinced that the show is presenting an accurate account of the events that unfolded behind the scenes of the O.J. trial, this has not diminished my interest in watching it.

I found myself thinking back to what I remember of the actual trial back in 1994-1995. In truth, I don't remember that much about the trial itself. I remember tuning in to see the infamous Bronco chase, the constant media coverage, the obsession nearly all the late-night comedians seemed to have with the whole thing. I know I watched some of the the trial; however, I bored of it rather quickly because I could count on hearing about it whether I watched it or not.

What I had forgotten about until the show brought back the memories was how difficult it was for me to discuss the case with others due to the tribalism that quickly emerged around it. Most of my Black and Hispanic friends were absolutely convinced of two things: O.J. was innocent and the LAPD was attempting to frame him due to rampant racism connected to hating to see a successful Black man. They were so sure of this that alternative possibilities were hastily dismissed without a second thought. Most of my White friends were absolutely convinced of two different things: O.J. was guilty and the officers working for the LAPD were just trying to do their jobs, albeit imperfectly. They too were so sure of this that they were not willing to seriously consider alternatives.

My thoughts about the case were a bit different. I thought it was possible that O.J. could be guilty and that there could be racist officers working for the LAPD who had made serious errors, some of which could be motivated by bias. I was not 100% certain about either of these possibilities, but I did not see them as mutually exclusive. Just because some of the police officers were likely biased did not necessarily mean that O.J. was innocent. And just because O.J. likely committed the murders did not mean that some of the police officers were not racist.

None of my Black or Hispanic friends called me a racist when I admitted that I thought it was more likely than not that O.J. had committed the crimes. I suspect this was because they knew me and had little reason to think that I was racist. At the same time, I heard them refer to others they did not know personally as racist for expressing such thoughts. I found the notion that several LAPD officers were conspiring, along with the prosecutors, to frame a thoroughly innocent O.J. simply because he was wealthy and Black to be implausible. I was somewhat surprised that some of my friends did not find this line of thought to be far-fetched at all.

If I did itMost of my White friends were also able to refrain from calling me names when they found out that I thought O.J. deserved due process or that I was willing to consider the possible role of racism in the LAPD as a relevant factor. Those that did not were third-wave feminists, and they angrily accused me of defending O.J. because he was a man and of failing to take into account the evidence that he had a history of domestic violence. Since I was not defending O.J. or denying the relevance of domestic violence, I remember being puzzled by these angry attacks initially. I would eventually conclude that their animosity was largely fueled by their conviction that a man who had perpetrated acts of violence against women did not deserve a fair trial.

What I remember most about the discussions of the case we had at the time was how I felt like I was being pulled in opposite directions by both sides. Everybody seemed to want me on their side but only if I accepted their chosen narrative. Those who were convinced that O.J. was the innocent victim of a racist conspiracy needed me to accept both that he was innocent and that the conspiracy was real. Those who were convinced that O.J. was guilty and that the police were blameless needed me to accept both that he was an abusive monster who had murdered two victims and that the worst thing one could say about the police was that some of them had made some mistakes.

I had a harder time expressing unpopular opinions likely to be met with animosity in those days. My chosen means of coping was to stop sharing my opinions on the case. I was happy to listen to my friends expressing their views, but I became less likely to participate in the discussions. Fortunately, most of my friends seemed to realize that nobody was likely to change their minds and that remaining friends was more important than being right about any of this. Were this to happen today in our climate of near constant social media outrage, I suspect that some friendships would have been ruined.

I have written previously about how I consider freethought to entail the rejection of tribalism. The ease with which my friends formed tribes around competing narratives of the O.J. trial is one more example of tribalism, though it was admittedly a mild example. Being in the middle where I could see some merit in both narratives but was unwilling to swallow either uncritically is an experience this freethinker has had repeatedly. I suppose I should feel fortunate that it is one with which I have become much more comfortable.