Thursday, September 19, 2013

Creativity as a Civic Duty

So yesterday I was at jury duty. I did not get picked, although I was well up in the numbers (#10), which means I was specifically un-chosen. This did not surprise me, and does not hurt my feelings, because I probably shouldn't be on a jury. It's just way too easy for me to identify imaginatively with everybody in a case. And of course there's the whole issue of my two modes, Silent and Can't Shut Up.

But it boggled my mind, the number of people who said they couldn't think why, if you were innocent and accused, you wouldn't testify. That's just a failure of the imagination. I wouldn't do it - I talk too much and I annoy people and I bewilder them because my honest emotional reactions fall at the extremes of the bell curve and if I happened to be cross-examined when hungry - holey cheese, no! Just, no. And what if you have a stutter, or English is your second language, or you're self-conscious about your voice, or think poorly on your feet, or the opposing counsel reminds you of your abusive dad, or - I could come up with innocent reasons for silence all day long. (And I think everybody in that courtroom knows that now.)

Why is it so hard to bend their minds around the idea that the presumption of innocence includes the presumption that if the defendant doesn't testify there's an innocent reason for it?

Why do people assume that everything they're mildly curious about is their business?

I hear this sort of thing all the time, directed at me and at people around me. Why are you in a wheelchair? How did your spouse get HIV? If you're still friends with your ex why did you divorce? Why don't you have any children?

The answer to all these questions, and others like them, is: None of your business. Yet if you give this reply, the questioner is likely to treat you as the rude one.

When you're tempted to ask a question like that, stop and think a minute. Imagine a few scenarios that might result in the condition about which you are curious (or feel genuinely sympathetic and concerned) and ask yourself: "If that happens to be the reason, and it were me, how would I feel on being asked about it? And even if it's not - how often does she get asked about this? How annoying will this question be?" And then you won't ask.

Sure, the person might need to talk about it - but there's a thousand different ways to let someone know you're there to listen without asking personal questions that might have painful answers. And the people who demand information in this way aren't going to be good listeners. They're mildly curious, and a lot thoughtless, and that's all. Far from helping, they are part of the problem of coping - irritation on a wound.

Writing stories and drawing pictures and making music are refinements and developments of our basic creativity. We are all creative because we are part of a social species, and dealing productively with other members of our species requires that we be able to imaginatively identify with them.

Probably the lawyers wrote me off as being too easy with this facility. We all know people who become too enamored of the stories they tell themselves about the world to deal with the world itself when it differs from that story; and though I don't routinely do that, this is a reasonable reservation to have about me as a juror. I am professionally primed to read between the lines and fill in the gaps between the facts in the way that makes the best story, which is not necessarily the most just way to render a verdict. But other people in the same courtroom were undoubtedly written off for their professed inability to extrapolate at all - because that's not conducive to justice, either.

I hope they found the happy medium of that ability in the twelve people chosen.

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