David Egan is a philosopher by training who teaches online courses at eganphilosophy.com.
Every trip to the bathroom felt like a perp walk. Heads would swivel as I moved through the restaurant, escorted by a uniformed officer. The bemused diners seemed so innocent and carefree. They weren’t under constant surveillance. They also weren’t carrying the weight of deliberating over another person’s freedom.
I was in the final stages of jury duty on a criminal trial. After a week and a half of hearing evidence, we were sequestered until we reached a verdict. The meal breaks and the walk to and from the hotel – all with court sheriffs by my side – were my only contact with the outside world. Deliberation lasted 48 hours – no phone, no internet – and I wound up spending more time with my 11 fellow jurors, who had been complete strangers just two weeks earlier, than with almost anyone else this year.
I’m forbidden by law to tell anyone about the deliberations themselves. But I do want to say a bit about what they were like, which is to say: transformative. The experience showed me a model for a better political community.
The jury, comprised of a random cross-section of Vancouver residents, ranged in age from mid-20s to mid-70s. Some of the jurors were recent immigrants. One had roots in the Lower Mainland since the 19th century. The only other place I’ve encountered this kind of diversity is on public transit.
Getting acquainted during our breaks felt like the first week at a new school. Tentatively, we found our bearings with one another and formed connections. By the time deliberations began, we were less than friends but more than strangers.
Although we were different in so many ways, we shared an appreciation of the weighty responsibility we’d been given. A guilty verdict would deprive someone of their freedom. A not-guilty verdict would leave someone feeling a wrong had gone unpunished. There was no happy outcome. I don’t think I’ve ever faced such a consequential decision.
However little we had in common outside the courthouse, we shared this awesome responsibility with one another and with no one else. It created an odd and intimate bond.
After hearing closing arguments, we shuffled into a large room with seminar-style seating. The sheriffs rolled in a couple trolleys laden with evidence and then left – locking us in from the outside.
The requirement that our verdict be unanimous cemented the goodwill between us. We couldn’t leave that room until we all agreed, or until we determined in all good faith that agreement was impossible. Unlike the divisive politics outside the courtroom, there was nothing to be gained by dunking on the people you disagreed with, or shouting them down. Working toward unanimity demanded patience and kindness.
After a day and a half of deliberation without a unanimous verdict, we headed to our hotel for a second night. The desire to just be done with the whole thing and get back to our lives was palpable. But goodwill persisted to the end. Jurors heard one another out, voiced disagreement respectfully, and were generous and patient as we grappled with the evidence – as well as with our own consciences.
There was relief all round when we reached a verdict, but there was also a feeling of deflation as we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. I knew I’d miss these people. Our friendships wouldn’t have formed naturally outside this setting but that made the connections all the more special.
Our community of 12 presented in miniature what I hope for in politics more broadly: A diverse group of strangers thrust together with a common purpose, working toward a goal with goodwill and mutual respect. The courtroom felt like a sacred space in which a community works through its problems openly and with a commitment to fairness. Our individual desires and preferences were unimportant. Our collective responsibility was paramount.
If 12 Canadians could manage it, I found myself thinking, could 38 million?
The idea that friendliness should be a central political virtue might sound novel, but it can be found as far back as Aristotle. Law alone isn’t sufficient to hold a state together, he argues. Fully realized justice requires friendship as well, which Aristotle defines as mutual, and mutually recognized, goodwill.
Canadian politics has been shaped by a liberal tradition that holds that individuals should be free to do as they like so long as they don’t step on one another’s toes. To thrive as a political community, Aristotle says, we need more than that. His idea of politics as friendship has modern-day advocates, including Harvard political theorist Danielle Allen.
The surge in populist politics over the past half-decade and the fractious politics of COVID-19 restrictions illustrate Aristotle’s point. A shared government alone can’t hold people together in circumstances of mutual suspicion. Indeed, empirical evidence suggests a correlation between low rates of death and infection from COVID-19 and high levels of trust among citizens.
So jury duty became, for me, an unexpected lesson in political friendship. Handing us real responsibilities seemed to make us responsible, and sharing those responsibilities fostered goodwill. If my experience is anything to go by, our political system would benefit from more of these opportunities for collective deliberation.
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