…only a particular concatenation of circumstances will reveal that one man always acts in a good way because his instinctual inclinations compel him to, and the other is good only in so far and for so long as such cultural behaviour is advantageous for his own selfish purposes. But superficial acquaintance with an individual will not enable us to distinguish between the two cases, and we are certainly misled by our optimism into grossly exaggerating the number of human beings who have been transformed in a cultural sense.
—Sigmund Freud (‘Thoughts for the Times on War and Death’, in Standard Edition, vol. 14, p. 284)
The other day I went to the courthouse for jury duty. The last time I had received a summons was in late 2020 and had gone to the courthouse and through the sepulchral security only to find that they had no need of jurors (with the not particularly subtle implication that this information had been posted on their website and it would have been more considerate of me to have checked there, rather than waste their time by coming in person – but time is to be wasted and has no better use, in my opinion). Message boards over the line for security, silent and blank the last time I was there, now broadcast determinedly solicitous messages from various courthouse staff, the knell of repeated words and phrases – ‘procedural justice’, ‘listen’, ‘rules’, ‘respect’ – providing no very happy vision for the day ahead, one almost as dismal as the overcast morning.
At the head of the stairs, a clerk collected compensation forms and handed out brightly colored badges, directing the jury pool to trickle into a large holding tank furnished with uncomfortable chairs in unsoothing shades of blue. The windows running along one wall barely broke above the trees to provide a view out over the river. I selected a chair behind a concrete pillar that effectively blocked my view of the front and, after admiring the minute fissures and sedimentation in said pillar, settled in to do some of my own work for the twenty minutes before the room was called to attention for training.
There is a comforting familiarity to entry-level training (here presented in video format, half PSA, half infomercial), the invalid-ish gruel of simple keywords – ‘evidence’, ‘duty’, ‘unconscious’, ‘bias’ – made almost palatable by repeated expressions of appreciation and thanks simply for showing up. By the time the videos were over, it was time for the regularly scheduled break, which ended only shortly before the regularly scheduled, ninety-minute lunch. A slow day, the clerk noted, before sending half the jurors home.
From my uncomfortable chair, I alternated between working and reading (The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar and Euthyphro), before finally being called as the second-to-last juror for a panel in the early afternoon. I took the elevator up with my unfamiliar peers to a bright, curiously empty hallway bounded by windows through which reflected sunlight sparkled off the river now that the morning clouds had cleared. We started down the hall as a court clerk rounded the corner, backlit and radiant as justice herself; actually, she said, we won’t be needing the last five jurors – you can go. So we went, unexpectedly free, out into the summer afternoon sun.