I had jury duty today. I ended up getting released quite soon, along with the rest of the pool, because of a technicality in the case which forced a delay.
But I had some time to think about it while I waited around. Most people there, and even the bailiff, talked about it as if it were an inconvenience that had to be put up with. We watched the tape that described jury duty, and they had a lot to say about civic duty and safeguarding our democracy and the like, but most people just regarded it as hokey propaganda.
But without getting into the specifics of the right of trial by jury, it got me thinking about the general lack of a sense of civic duty in this country. It seems that few people make decisions based on how it affects the rest of society, and just think of the inconvenience to them. But for our society to function as constituted, it is necessary for the populace to be civic minded. How can we recover this sense of civic pride?
In the Philippines, when I would ask questions of the locals about the state of local politics, I heard the sentiment more than once, “The Philippines needs a dictatorship.” There are more than a few there who pine for the days of Ferdinand Marcos, when at least, they say, they had discipline. This is another way of saying that the average Filipino lacks a sense of civic pride, civic duty. They feel a great deal of loyalty and responsibility to their family and close friends, often going far out of their way to help each other. But this sense of responsibility does not often seem to extend to the society or nation as a whole (please correct me if I’m wrong, any of my new Filipino friends).
But America was built on such a sense of civic duty. And something such as jury duty ought to be regarded as a privilege, an opportunity to participate in our wonderful system. Instead we regard it as an inconvenience, and try to get out of it. Or all too often, when we do serve, we view it as an opportunity to assert those selfish priorities and “stick it to the man”, awarding ridiculous and outrageous awards to the “little guy” at the expense of some corporation, with no regard for the damage that this does to the society as a whole. Instead, too many of us relish the vicarious pleasure of helping some individual reap a huge windfall at the expense of a faceless public, indicating what we ourselves would do if given the chance.
When every individual is thinking about how he can benefit at the expense of the society as a whole, it is the end of democracy. Democracy only works when those participating are willing to look beyond their narrow interests and realize that their welfare as individuals depends on the welfare of the whole society. And taking a little time off to help the jury system function is a small price to pay to live in a country where we are guaranteed a trial by a jury of our peers.