Jury Deliberations: Twelve Angry [Humans]
When the parties to a legal conflict fail to resolve their disputes outside of court (e.g., “settling” or “plea bargaining”), the matter goes to a trial. The American system affords two general types of trials: jury trials and bench trials. The latter is another way of saying that the trial will be before a judge alone, without a jury. The former, the jury trial, is familiar and is the basis for the discussion here. When attorneys are presenting evidence and arguing at trial, they must remember that the individual members of the jury are their audience, and they must keep in mind the particular nature of this audience. Although they can vary in size and composition, it is most useful to think of juries as twelve lay citizens who are hearing most of the trial presentation– both its substantive and technical aspects– for the first time. This means that they probably will receive the presentation without any context for understanding or with a warped or misinformed context, due to the proliferation of legal-themed popular entertainment like John Grisham novels and television programs like Law & Order. Most important for lawyers, most mysterious for legal scholars, and most relevant to the current discussion here, however, is the fact that after receiving the trial presentation, the jurors retreat to private quarters and deliberate.
The most popular exploration of the American jury deliberation process came in the form of the 1957 motion picture 12 Angry Men. The movie isn’t perfect– it contains technical inaccuracies that irk some legal practitioners but serve dramatic purposes– but it was good enough for the Japanese, who used the story as an aid to civic education when preparing citizens in 2007 for the adoption of a jury system that was to go into effect this year. 12 Angry Men showcases passion, drama, and emotion in civic deliberation. These sound like good things, and they probably are when thought of as aspects of a process that leads to a desirable outcome. In the trial context, that would be a just verdict.
In a society that favors quality deliberation as a means to the end in the form of a desirable outcome or decision, things can get twisted around. Specifically, people can find themselves treating deliberation as an end. The wide dissemination of cable television has brought an expansive set of cable news networks into the public forum. These networks have elevated individual “pundits,” who frequently seek to win the day (or, in the television news cycle timescale, the half-minute) by achieving a trite, petty, or trivial oratorical victory. The primary tools in these small battles include shouting, hyperbole, and the silencing of opposition voices. To many, this behavior is mere annoyance, something to pay attention to or not, without consequence.
There are other, more insidious effects of this twisting of deliberation from a means into an end. One is the presentation of a false dichotomy. Another is the championing of minor points made as key victories that destabilize the opposition in some fundamental way. The first is rather simple, and can be saved for another time: whether it’s Fox News Channel’s “Fair and Balanced” treatment or CNN turning to a “Republican Strategist” to play Devil’s Advocate, these presentations often oversimplify problems, drum up resentment or disagreement where little actually exists, or distort the weight of authority, sentiment, or disagreement by giving “equal time” to “equal viewpoints” that may be neither equal, representative, nor accurate. This post is addressing the second point. That one pundit, usually the host of the program, can extract a minor victory and therefore signal the illegitimacy of the entirety of the talking head-opponent’s (no, not these folks) views distorts public dialogue and understanding, and does so in a manner not immediately obvious to the observer. This is true even when the point “won” is true. It is the relative magnitude, and not the accuracy, of the two positions– the minor victory and the major worldview– that causes the distortion. Even totally bogus worldviews properly withstand attacks comprised entirely of a single, nitpicky counterargument; how much more, then, a more legitimate position.
This happens all over the political spectrum. Sean Hannity demonstrated it well a few years ago when he invited a liberal, environmentalist stooge on his program when Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth Tour was in full inconvenience mode. If memory serves, Hannity was not finding a lot of success in this debate. Finally, he seized on a favorable point: then-President George W. Bush’s Crawford, TX ranch was more environmentally friendly than Gore’s Nashville, TN mansion. This nugget of truth in hand, Hannity demanded that his opponent submit and surrender all of his environmentalist positions. This is the trick, though: just because Gore doesn’t practice what he preaches doesn’t mean he’s preaching a false gospel. (The other side is even sillier: because the President did what Gore should have done under Gore’s views, the President is right and we should therefore ignore Gore’s views?) Of course, we can’t get tricked by the trick (that is, we cannot dismiss a Hannity whenever he or she is able to advance only a single true, if off-base, criticism against an environmentalist): just as bad attacks shouldn’t undermine a worthy opponent, neither should weak attacks be taken as a signal of the general merit of the opponent or of the pettiness of the attacker’s general position.
As discussed in the first post, patience would seem to be an apt virtue in this position, as would the impetus to gather further information and seek to discover whether other legitimate counterarguments exist that comes from the knowledge that one must eventually take action in the form of rendering a decision on the matter at hand.
For a current situation that has the potential to play out along lines similar to that of the Hannity exchange recalled above, read this brief post about the leaked climate change research emails and offer your comments below in light of the discussion here. For an argument about how this new information should affect the public’s knowledge and views, read this related post.