This man’s death was also a bona fide conspiracy and not a conspiracy theory.
Conservatives are generally more prone to falling for conspiracy theories than liberals, but that doesn’t mean liberals are immune, especially when the conspiracy theory addresses a psychological need on the left. (Thought interestingly, I’ve noticed that most to all conspiracy theories tend to drift rightward. Anti-vaccination theories and belief that the moon landing was faked are both conspiracy theories that started on the left—growing in the fertile ground of antagonism against Big Pharma and belief that Richard Nixon was corrupt—but now the majority of adherents are on the right. Go figure.) So it’s not a big surprise, though it is a disappointment, that the conspiracy theories about George Zimmerman pulling people from a wrecked car are starting to pop up.
My biggest concern about the conspiracy theories—outside of my general concern about how conspiracy theories pollute discourse—is that they lead people to fundamentally misunderstand the issues at stake in this battle. The problem with George Zimmerman is not that he’s a mustache-twirling villain who goes out to do evil deliberately. No, the problem is much worse: He thinks he’s a good person. All the evidence suggests that he and his supporters have completely convinced themselves that black people are a menace and that he somehow did a good thing by killing Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman has even said that he thinks it was “god’s plan” for him to execute this teenager who had the misfortune of walking across Zimmerman’s path while being black. Bigots very rarely understand that their ideas are terrible, hateful ideas. That’s what makes them scary. I worry less about the person who thinks they’re doing wrong than the person doing wrong who thinks they’re doing right.
That said, I have to point out to Alex Seitz-Wald that whoever tweeted, “Zimmerman can pull someone from a burning car, but he can’t a push 17-year-old, 150 pound boy off of him?” was not engaging in a conspiracy theory, at least in that tweet. They are arguing that Zimmerman’s defense was based on a lie. He claimed that he had to shoot Trayvon Martin, because Martin jumped him and overpowered him. It’s well within the bounds of reason to be skeptical of that defense, particularly in light of all the evidence pointing to a much more likely narrative, which is that Zimmerman picked a fight with Martin and used Martin’s attempts to escape a pretext to murder him. Zimmerman’s extremely mild injuries are not consistent with what he claimed happened. It’s not unreasonable to think he lied in order to escape justice and got away with it. Accepting that people lie is not a conspiracy theory, but just common sense. Suggesting that it’s the most probable explanation for what happened here is perfectly reasonable.
The problem with conspiracy theories is not just that they assume that people sometimes lie or that they assume that people sometimes conspire. Both happen all the time! It’s that they forward explanations for events that probably aren’t or couldn’t possibly be true. They underestimate the probability of coincidences and overestimate how easy it is for people to keep a lid on a conspiracy. So while it’s totally within the bounds of probability—and in fact improbable to say it doesn’t happen—for people to misrepresent an event they were involved in to evade justice, it’s simply too fantastical to suggest that someone conspired with a bunch of other people to fake a car rescue to fix their public reputation. Especially in the case of George Zimmerman, who clearly seems to think that there’s nothing wrong with his reputation anyway, and that the people who are in the wrong are the people who hate him. Yes, he’s deluded, but that’s the point: Only a non-deluded person would be motivated to stage such a thing, and we know that Zimmerman is deluded about who he is.
By way of example of how to tell the difference: It’s a conspiracy theory to believe that JFK was murdered by a shadowy conspiracy that wanted him out of office for [fill in your pet reason]. All the evidence points to a single murderer who was motivated by his own bitterness and hatred. It is not a conspiracy theory to argue that a group of people conspired to assassinate Lincoln in a bid to reopen the Civil War. That’s established fact and the people involved were outed, and like many actual conspiracies, it went kind of sideways and didn’t accomplish what it meant to accomplish. I hope the differences here are obvious, particularly in terms of how it’s nigh impossible to keep a lid on a conspiracy, especially after its plan has been put into action, which tends to out the conspirators.