Driving Under the Influence

Some years ago, I served on a six-person jury to determine the fate of a man accused of driving under the influence. The judge appointed me “forelady” of the jury – his choice of words, not mine. (As in, “Madam Forelady, has the jury reached a verdict?” Yes, the judge really did ask me that question.)

The case was convoluted, so when the jury began to deliberate, we were not of one mind. By the end of the first day, we were split down the middle, three to three. We all left the courthouse anticipating another day of yammering at each other.

The next day, I trudged in to the courthouse motivated by two concerns. I wanted the defendant to receive a fair trial. And, I wanted the trial to end in a timely fashion. So, when the jury resumed deliberations, I made a request. “I suggest,” I said, “That we start today by spending some time arguing the opposite viewpoint from our own. Maybe something will shift that way.” The other five jurors agreed to give it a try. But I was stunned by the outcome. Other than me, only one other juror was actually able to articulate a viewpoint other than her own.

Had we even listened to each other the previous day, I wondered? Were our minds open? Or closed? Had we adopted the spirit of inquiry necessary for thoughtfully examining the evidence of the case? Were we truly deliberating, in other words? Or were we arguing?

To my mind, there is a critical difference between deliberating and arguing. Deliberating results when people with varied viewpoints try to understand one another so that they can solve a problem together. In the end, though opinions may still differ, people gain appreciation and compassion for alternative viewpoints, and everyone feels heard. Arguing results when people engage in a verbal slug fest, with each side trying to get its own way. The one with the loudest voice, the most energy, and the fiercest inflexibility may “win” the argument, but ultimately polarization and hurt feelings, rather than appreciation and compassion, prevail. Everyone loses that way.

I have thought a lot about my memory of that trial now that election season is upon us. Elections seem to bring out the worst in people, with the rules of civil discourse suspended while candidates and proponents of particular positions lob their insults at each other. This year our culture seems to have reached a new low, where the major presidential candidates simply engage in character assassination rather than discussing the issues at all.

Perhaps a certain lack of civility is natural when human beings feel challenged (and in an election, people certainly are challenged). After all, evolution and the survival of the fittest is built on defensiveness to a certain extent. But I cannot help but long for something different and better.

What if our world worked differently? What if people deliberated instead of arguing? What if all of us tried on an alternative viewpoint once in a while, just to attempt to understand another position? I understand the value of firmly held beliefs. Most of us have developed values that we hold sacrosanct. But, the more unyielding, defiant, implacable, and hard-nosed people become, the more dangerous our world becomes, too. “I’m right and you’re wrong,” never goes very far in either diplomacy or enlightenment.

“Don’t judge a man until you have walked two moons in his moccasins,” my mother used to say. Wouldn’t the world be better if we behaved that way?

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