debbie millman

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Commentary: The Meaning of Mean

Last week I spent several days in Supreme Court Jury Duty in New York City. I had never served before, and I really didn’t know what to expect other than what my friends and family told me: bring a lot of books and magazines; you’ll be bored.

It was boring at times, but it was also fascinating. The “people watching” was enough to keep me occupied, and observing the range of folks that were with me in the jury room kept me busy for hours. There was the crusty man in the fishing hat that could barely hear, a middle aged woman with a ratty bag of newspapers (no, that wasn’t me), a college sophomore in a low cut, clingy dress, Manolo Blahnick stiletto’s and a spray on tan, an elderly woman with diabetes, a big bag of snacks and a walker; and mind you, these were just the folks sitting nearest to me.

64 people were called for jury selection in my group, in two groups of 32, and I was Juror Number 32 in the second group. Which essentially meant that I had to pay attention to all the potential jurors preceding me as they answered the various questions we were all asked, including the following:

--Are you absolutely positive that you can be neutral given the topic of this case (medical malpractice)?
--Is there any reason why you would not be able to be impartial?
--Is there anything that has happened to you that would prevent you from being fair in coming to a verdict?

Prior to hearing all of the jurors answer these questions, I was convinced that I could be a fair and impartial juror. I actually looked forward to the possibility of sitting on the case, and determining the just from the unjust. I had vague visions of sequestered jury arguments, dissecting the details of the case and skillfully and ingeniously uncovering and determining what was true and fair. But as potential juror after juror was questioned, and as they all responded with thoughtful and valid questions about impartiality and neutrality, I began to waver. In fact, by the time they got to me, I was in a complete and total philosophical conundrum: how could we ever be impartial to anything? How could we not expect that our own personal viewpoints and experiences and how we define “fair” would not get in the way of determining a just outcome? I was so overwhelmed by my utter inability to make the “right” decisions in my own life that I became completely convinced that I had no right to make any monumental decisions for anyone else. By the time the lawyer for the prosecution got to me, Juror Number 32, I had had a total philosophical breakdown. When he asked me if I could be neutral, I simply shook my head no. When he asked me why, I responded that I didn’t think that I could be neutral about anything, and furthermore, I didn’t think I could handle the responsibility of participating in, or determining the future of, another human being. He looked at me in disbelief and dramatically crossed my name off of his list. Needless to say, I was not called for another jury selection.

This experience has led me to re-evaluate a number of things that have happened in the last couple of weeks—both publicly and personally. In assessing what is happening in the Middle East, in assessing what is happening on the blog Design Observer, and in a number of personal interactions. How can we, as feeble human beings, ever know what is truly the right thing to do? How can we know if our opinions are fair? How do we know if our convictions, in the grand scheme of things, are valid? For me, both as Juror Number 32, and as a 44-year-old woman living in 2006, it is very, very hard to say.

In the past few weeks, I have been particularly outspoken about my opinions. Prior to my philosophical breakdown in Supreme Court, I was feeling confidently entitled to my opinions, so much so, that I have been rather vocal about some of these opinions online. As a result, I have received some email correspondence with those that I have been critical of. Understandably, these emails have questioned my opinions; some have been angry assaults on my convictions, others were disappointed diatribes that took me to task for being so public with what they considered to be wrong or petty or unnecessarily mean viewpoints. My responses to these emails were varied, but the common denominator was one of depersonalizing the message from the messenger and essentially, the “right” everyone has to their personal opinions.

Right. Looking back on this now, I think I was full of shit. I say this primarily because once you open yourself up to feeling entitled to voice your criticisms and opinions, you also open yourself up to hearing opinions and criticisms about yourself. Which, in my case, doesn’t always feel good.

While I might think it is certainly within anyone’s “freedom of speech” rights to be critical (whether constructive or not) I also think that hurting someone in the process is not “right.” Whether we mean to or not, if someone else believes that we are being unfair or mean, we need to consider that. Until I am capable of not taking the criticism I hear about my own work or point of view personally, I don’t think it is right for me to do that to anyone else.

Every gesture we make now is cinematic: it gets swept up in to a swift sequence of gestures that precede and follow it. Think of it as the ultimate domino effect. If we can’t handle something that is done to us, then perhaps we shouldn’t do it to others. I know this sounds rather simplistic, but if we all could live like this, think of the possibilities.

A couple of months ago, a design magazine came out with a cover that friends of mine designed. Before I knew they designed it, I determined that I didn’t like it. After I found out that my friends designed it, I wavered. Given that I knew them and respected them as well as I did, I began to backtrack and reconsider the myriad of meanings that the cover could have and what I might not have considered in their approach to designing it. But I felt feeble and embarrassed in doing this. How weak to not be staunch in my belief in something just because I liked who created it! Several days later, I confessed my behavior to Steve Heller, and asked him if it was morally okay to reconsider your opinion of something when you found out who was responsible for creating that “something.” He laughed and replied that while he didn’t know if it was right or wrong, it was human nature, and often inevitable.

In the criticisms I have received this week, my immediate response was to want to reply with statements such as, “How could you think that? Don’t you know me well enough to know that I did this because of this or that? Don’t you know how hard I worked? Don’t you know what I really meant?” But I didn’t and I won’t. I can’t. It really wouldn’t be fair.

We are now living in a world where nations, countries and tribes all see the world in different ways. It is nearly impossible to determine what is fair and impartial. In considering all of our individual behavior, and all of the possible responses to moral, religious, political and personal stances, I can only consider what it means to be responsible. With all of the anger and hatred and violence we are currently surrounded by, I am now only absolutely, positively sure of one thing. I believe that we all owe it to each other to give those around us the benefit of a doubt, to consider what things might be like for those that might think differently, and at the risk of sounding incredibly naïve and simplistic, to do unto others as we would want others to do unto us.


Anonymous Noah's mom said...

Hi Debbie,
I was procrastinating, reading comments on Noah's blog, saw your link, and after reading this post, I had to comment. I loved this, loved your thought process, loved your writing, loved your conclusion!!!

You brought me back to my first jury duty -- MANY years ago -- both the people-watching and the intense questionning of my ability to be fair and unbiased ... and then carried me forward through so many of the questions I've wrestled with, particularly in trying to raise moral children.

That's why I SO loved your conclusion: "do unto others ..." By halfway through, I was rooting for you to end there -- and you did :)

At the risk of taking this too seriously, I fervently believe this is not naive or simplistic, but the essence of our purpose on earth. Too often, we allow money, politics, religion, etc., to color our perception of right and wrong, when it really is just as simple -- and just as challenging -- as living by the golden rule.

7/19/2006 04:43:00 PM  
Blogger Tania Rochelle said...

Every time I turn around--especially when I'm feeling self-righteous--I'm being taught this lesson.

Nice to hear someone else discussing it honestly.

7/27/2006 08:16:00 PM  

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