A few years ago, I was your typical office-worker: stressed out, uneven energy, overweight, and inconsistent complexion. Now I'm just your typical 28-year old urban hunter-gatherer on a quest to be healthy, and having a few adventures along the way. See my full bio.
Sizing up the other guy
When men are getting drawn into a confrontation, they instinctively size each other up: height, build, posture, jawline, aggressiveness, presence of allies, stuff like that.
What many people don't seem to realize is that men are less likely to get into a violent altercation when there is a clear mismatch in body size. Two men don't get into violent altercations because the strong prey upon the weak -- call it The Playground Bully Theory of Violence. Males get into altercations when there are two somewhat evenly-matched men who need to determine which one is dominant. Remember, males in a lot of species use non-violent dominance displays to avoid a costly conflict.
So when I heard that George Zimmerman had a 100-pound weight advantage over Trayvon Martin, I was shocked. Sounded like Zimmerman was an aggressive vigilante. But as it turns out, this information wasn't accurate, like so much of the early reporting on this case, even on something as objective and factual as weight. The NYT now reports:
"...the neighborhood watch coordinator, 5 foot 9 and 170 pounds, and the visitor, 6 foot 1 and 150, wrestling on the ground."
So Zimmerman was stockier, but Martin was four inches taller. Tragically, this makes a lot more sense.
I'd be willing to bet that Zimmerman's initial confrontation of Martin was far more aggressive and dominant than his body-size "warranted" -- because Zimmerman knew he was armed and that the police were coming. And I would be totally unsurprised if Zimmerman didn't reveal the power mismatch. Martin didn't know this. All Martin knows is that he's being aggressively approached by a confrontational guy...who is four inches shorter than he is. I wouldn't be too happy about that either. And it escalated from there.
This mismatch in perceptions of power is the main reason why young confrontational males will get into a physical altercation. And it results from either over-estimating your own power or under-estimating the other guy's.
When I was a senior in college, I got into a fight because of a similar dynamic. It was the night after the last day of exams, so everybody was out in full force. As the bar was letting out, a large fight was already underway, but the police had arrived and were breaking it up. There were probably 3-5 police cars, and a bunch of officers. They broke up the fight, and the crowd was dispersing.
I didn't know anyone involved in the fight, and I'm walking with a friend back to my dorm when I get bumped pretty hard by one of the guys who had been involved in the fight, who was yelling at someone else and wasn't watching where he was going. I said, "Hey, watch it, buddy." He spins around and says, "Who you calling buddy, buddy?"
And really, that's all it takes.
So at that point, we're face to face, neither one backing down, each sizing each other up. Again, sizing someone up happens instinctively, it doesn't require a lot of conscious thought. He was taller and heavier than I was, plus he was standing uphill. He could probably clean my clock. As it turned out, he was on the hockey team -- Harvard usually has a pretty good hockey team -- and he looked like a hockey player. So even though I knew I probably would lose a fight if a fight took place, there were police officers all over the place, so I judged that a fight was unlikely -- though it wasn't as calculated as I'm making it sound. Anyhow, verbally, I didn't back down and neither did he.
And then he clocked me in the face, spinning me around and splitting open my cheek. Then he immediately ran off down an alley. I didn't feel it, but I looked down and blood was streaming down my body. A police officer witnessed the entire thing from about 20 feet away (don't quote me on the distance, it was a long time ago). Then I went to the hospital and got stitches.
In a moment when you know the universe has a sense of humor, my parents had a layover in Boston the very next morning, and I was supposed to have lunch with them at the airport. And here I am, showing up with ten stitches in my face. (I told my parents in advance so my mom didn't have a heart attack when she saw me.) Anyhow, that was an interesting lunch.
A week later, on the day my parents arrived in Boston for graduation, the story was on the cover of the student newspaper. I really loved this comment by the close friend of the guy who hit me:
He added that Kelley, who took a year off before attending college to play semi-professional hockey with the U.S. hockey league, is not the confrontational type, unless provoked.
“He’s not a violent person,” Pararas said. “He doesn’t attack people—it’s not in his nature.”
Oh, those semi-pro hockey players -- so sensitive and non-violent. Too funny.
Anyhow, I'm sharing this because there's a much more serious point: if you want to prevent violence between two unknown men, then you need to understand how the male mind works. And so much of the ink that's been spilled on this topic has focused on racial issues that not only don't explain the incident very well, but also don't help prevent future violence in society more generally.
And that only makes the situation even more tragic than it already was.