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The Jury System is a cornerstone of justice and liberty. However, they are also controversial. On the one hand, there are those who see the jury system as an integral part of a free and impartial justice system. On the other hand, there are those who doubt the jury’s ability to deliver fair and honest verdicts.
Let’s start with the obvious fact that juries are far from perfect. They are imperfect because the people who make them up are imperfect. Ignorance is one major problem. Opponents of the jury system argue, with some justification, that it is too dangerous to place the fate of another human being in the hands of people incapable of understanding the complexities of the cases they are judging. Often those tasked with deciding the outcome of cases lack the technical or legal knowledge to adequately interpret the evidence and testimony being presented to them. It has been suggested that in these cases individual jurors will often resort to pre-conceived beliefs or allow themselves to be influenced by jurors with more knowledge – whether real or perceived – than they have.
Ignorance, however, is an easily solved problem. Why not select jury members based on their familiarity with the subject matters under discussion? Someone who works in the finance industry – bankers, financial advisors, accountants, and so forth – would be more equipped to judge financial-based crimes than the layperson.
Then there’s the question of who can sit on a jury. In the United Kingdom an individual needs to be aged between eighteen and seventy, have been a resident of the UK for at least five years since the age of thirteen, and must be mentally stable to serve on a jury. It would more than reasonable to suggest that qualifications for jury duty ought to be more stringent than they are. It is more than reasonable to suggest that the age limit ought to be raised from eighteen to perhaps twenty-five (if not older) and that jurors under the age of forty ought to have certain intellectual qualifications. This would ensure that those tasked with determining guilt or innocence would have the wisdom and/or intelligence to comprehend the grave nature of the responsibility they have been burdened with.
Those who criticise juries also argue that they are prone to bias and prejudice. In one shocking case, Kasim Davey was jailed for contempt when he boasted: “I wasn’t expecting to be in a jury deciding a paedophile’s fate. I’ve always wanted to fuck up a paedophile and now I’m within the law.” (Seemingly it never occurred to Mr. Davey that the man he was judging may have been innocent). Likewise, it is well known that many African American defendants were condemned by all-white juries in the Jim Crow South.
However, much of this is a red-herring. Professor Cheryl Thomas, the director of the Jury Program at University College of London, spent ten years analysing every jury verdict in England and Wales taking into account the race and gender of both defendants and jurors. Professor Thomas concluded that:
“There’s no evidence of systematic bias, for instance, against members of ethnic minorities, or that men are treated differently than women, that if you live in a particular part of the country or you have a certain background that you’re more likely to be convicted than others.”
Besides, those who criticise the jury system forget that juries reflect the values and principles of their society. If juries repeatedly deliver unjust verdicts it is because there is a sickness in that society. The fact that all-white juries tended to convict African American defendants merely because they were black is a reflection on the virulently racist nature of that society, not of the jury system itself. Today, the legal system is careful to disqualify those jurors who may harbour prejudices that will inhibit their ability to judge the facts impartially. Courts are very quick to disqualify jurors who may know the defendant or alleged victim, those with emotional links to the case (i.e. a victim of rape sitting on the jury of a rape trial), and so forth.
Lord Devlin, the second-youngest man to be appointed to the English High Court in the 20th century, once described the jury system as “the lamp which shows where freedom lives.” The principle behind juries is that the individual ought to be judged by his peers based on community standards, not by the politically elite. Without juries, our legal system would be dominated by judges and lawyers. What lies at the centre of the debate over juries is the question of whether the whole of society or just the elite should be involved in the dispensation of justice.
One of the great joys of my life is watching speeches and interviews given by great intellectuals. It was in pursuing this pleasure that I happened upon an episode of the ABC’s panel discussion show, Question and Answers. Coming out of the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, the four people on the panel – the traditional conservative, Peter Hitchens; the feminist writer, Germaine Greer; the American writer, Hanna Rosin; and the gay rights activist, Dan Savage – spent an hour discussing tops ranging from western civilisation to modern hook-up culture.
It became quickly apparent that the intellectual stature of the four panellists was not evenly matched. Hanna Rosin and Dan Savage were less rational, less mature, and more ignorant than Peter Hitchens and Germaine Greer. By comparison, Hitchens and Greer gave carefully considered answers to most of the questions asked. Hitchens, in particular, gave responses based on careful consideration, rational thought, fact, and wisdom. (This is not to say one is required to agree with him)
It was the behaviour of the audience that proved the most alarming, however. Like most Questions and Answers audiences, it was comprised mostly of idealistically left-wing youth. Their primary purpose for being there was to have their ideological presuppositions reinforced. With no apparent motivation to listen to the answers to their questions, these youngsters would clap and cheer like trained seals whenever someone makes an ideologically-correct statement.
How has our society become so stupid? Why do we no longer see being wise and knowledgeable as virtues in and of themselves? Part of the answer comes from a culture of self-hate and contempt promulgated by left-wing intellectuals. Accordingly, Christianity is regarded as archaic (unless, of course, it promotes left-wing beliefs), inequality is caused by capitalism, and the problems of women come as the result of the “patriarchy.” Even the Killing Fields of the Khmer Rouge are rather conveniently blamed on “trauma” emanating from the Vietnam War (rather than the actions of Pol Pot and his band of murderous, communist brutes).
This continuous, unrelenting assault on Western civilisation has led to a general estrangement from Western culture. The common people have been robbed of their inheritance because scholars and intellectuals have reduced their culture into a caricature to be dismantled at will. As a result, they are no longer exposed to the great works of art, architecture, literature, music, philosophy, poetry, sculpture, theology, and theatre that the Western world has produced.
The modern proclivity for ignorance and stupidity comes out of a very special kind of arrogance. It is the kind of arrogance that makes people believe that all those who came before them must be dumber than they are. It does not acknowledge that our modern “enlightenment” is built on the works of those who came before us. Our forebears would be dumbfounded to find a world where, despite having greater access to information than anyone else in history, people have closed their minds to learning.
What all this boils down to is a rejection of wisdom. If you believe that all those who came before you are dumber than yourself you are unlikely to believe they have anything worthwhile to contribute. As such, you are unlikely to believe in wisdom as a universal good. As Neel Burton over at Psychology Today pointed out: “in an age dominated by science and technology, by specialisation and compartmentalisation, it [wisdom] is too loose, too grand, and too mysterious a concept.”
We have made phenomenal advancements in all areas of human knowledge. Sadly, our successes have also made us arrogant and self-righteous. If we are to take full advantage of our potential, we need to reignite our cultural past and find the humility to learn from those who went before us.
Is there any other time in history more malaligned than the Middle Ages? Our modern conception of the so-called “dark ages” is that it was time characterised by superstition, barbarity, oppression, ignorance with a few outbreaks of the plague, just to make things interesting.
This view has been helped by numerous so-called educational resources. BBC’s Bitesize website, for example, takes a leaf from certain 19th-century British historians, the type of who saw Catholics as ignorant and childish, and caricatures Medieval peasants as “extremely superstitious” individuals who were “encouraged to rely on prayers to the saints and superstition” for guidance through life. It even accuses the Catholic Church of stagnating human thought and impeding technological development.
This does not represent the view, however, of many serious historians and academics. As Professor Ronald Numbers of Cambridge University explains:
“Notions such as: ‘the rise of Christianity killed off ancient science’, ‘the medieval Christian Church suppressed the growth of the natural sciences’, ‘the medieval Christians thought that the world was flat’, and ‘the Church prohibited autopsies and dissections during the Middle Ages’ [are] examples of widely popular myths that still pass as historical truth, even though they are not supported by historical research.’
In reality, the Middle Ages saw advances in law, politics, the sciences, theology, philosophy, and more. It saw the birth of the chartered town which ushered in the tradition of local self-governance. The existence of a strong papacy laid the foundations of limited political power as it prevented monarchs, who justified their power through their so-called “unique” relationship with God and the Church, from monopolising power. This symbolic limitation on monarchical power was manifested in the Magna Carta (1215) and the birth of the English Parliament.
The people of the Middle Ages produced magnificent Gothic cathedrals and churches. Many medieval monks became patrons of the arts and many were even artists themselves. In literature, the Middle Ages saw Dante’s the Divine Comedy and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. In music, the Middle Ages laid the foundation of Western classical music and saw the development of musical notation, western harmony, and many of the Christmas carols we know and love today.
Likewise, the Carolingian Renaissance of the 8th and 9th centuries saw advancements in the study of literature, architecture, jurisprudence, and theology. Medieval scholars and scientists, many of whom were monks and friars, studied natural philosophy, mathematics, engineering, geography, optics, and medicine.
In the spirit of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment, many universities, including Oxford University, Cambridge University, and the University of Cologne. These universities educated their students on law, medicine, theology, and the arts. In addition, the period also saw the foundation of many schools and many early Christian monasteries were committed to the education of the common people.
The Middle Ages saw advances in science, literature, philosophy, theology, the arts, music, politics, law, and more. Its legacy is all around us: whether it is in the limitations placed on the powers of Governments, the music we listen to, or in the tradition of education many of us have benefited from. In an era of political correctness perhaps we should be wondering whether we’re living in the “dark ages.”