What Jury Duty Taught Me About Comment Threads

by   |   dolinger@bju.edu   |  

After 45 years living in the same town, I finally got the call for jury duty. I’ve been hoping to get one for a long time; S.C. law has a provision that teachers can have their assigned week changed to one in the summer, when it wouldn’t intrude on their jobs. So I’ve wanted for a long time to get the experience.

I was seated on a criminal case, and the judge appointed me foreman. I was a little nervous about that, since I’d never been on a jury before. But another jury member had been a foreman on a case earlier that week, and I asked him to let me know if I was doing anything stupid.

It was a difficult case. It involved a sex crime (I’m going to try to avoid giving identifying details). Since in sex crimes there are often no witnesses but the victim and the perpetrator, it usually comes down to which person you believe. So you look for some indication that one or the other person might be lying. If there aren’t any such indications, what do you do?

Some on the jury said that they believed the victim, and that was enough for them. Guilty. Others said that they believed the victim too, but they weren’t prepared to send the defendant off to jail without better evidence than one person’s accusation—beyond reasonable doubt, and all that. Not guilty.

So there we were. Highly emotional case, strong feelings, opposing views.

What did we do?

This jury was highly diverse on every possible axis. Different races, sexes, ages, levels of education, employment statuses, economic statuses, levels of religiosity. Every reason to go nuclear.

But we didn’t. Everyone gave his opinion and the reasons for it; everyone else listened quietly and respectfully. We laid out the bases of disagreement objectively and calmly, with no harsh language and no rolling of the eyes or other visible signs of disrespect. We shared the same frustration over the evidence that we knew was being withheld from us. When someone stepped into the bathroom—during which policy requires that deliberation stop—we sat back and talked jovially and actively, without any awkward silences, and we didn’t choose to talk just with people we agreed with.

It was awesome.

And this at a time when the country is allegedly more polarized, and angry about it, than ever. You know it’s true; the comment threads on political websites prove it.

Don’t they?

Well, let’s do a little math. Let’s suppose that half the population is polarized and angry. What are the odds that we’d seat a jury of 12 with no angry people? If the odds of getting one non-hostile person are 1 in 2, then the odds of getting 12 in a row are 1 in 2¹², or 1 in 4,096. But if only one in 10 Americans is angry, the odds of getting that jury increase to better than 1 in 4.

So you know what I think? I think the rage that dominates the daily news cycle is overblown. I think that our fellow citizens are better than that. I think the comment threads and Facebook news feeds attract the angries the way a porch light attracts bugs. If you spend a lot of time there, you’re going to think the society is in much worse shape than it really is.

If I had no other reasons to be proud of my country and its people—and I have plenty—the two days I spent with my fellow jury members would be reason enough.

God bless them all.


This article was originally published at danolinger.com.


Dr. Dan Olinger is the chair of the Division of Bible at BJU and heads the summer ministry team to Africa.