The Leftist Ethicist — July Edition

  • Email
  • Print
  • Share
July 24, 2013

The Leftist Ethicist is an advice column for Zeek readers who envision a more just world and act to create it. With a commitment to justice and progressive Jewish teaching (and a loving nod to the Bintel Brief), the Leftist Ethicist provides a space to raise questions, without judgment, and receive sensible solutions.

I believe the criminal justice system is completely broken and racist. I want to make a difference for good as a jury member. Is it ethical to lie about my negative beliefs regarding the police to up my chances of getting selected?

As George Zimmerman’s non-guilty verdict for the murder of Trayvon Martin reminded all of us, juries matter. Beyond that, race and class discrimination are well documented in the criminal justice system.

It is infuriating when we realize, as Robert Gangi, founder of the Police Reform Organizing Project at the Urban Justice Center, said when I spoke to him: “Our taxes, money we pay to the state supports immoral, racially biased and unjust practices that the NYPD engages in everyday.”

However, to get on a jury, you can’t lead with that. Think of jury selection like a first date with someone you want to impress. On a date, instead of saying you haven’t read a full book in 15 years, you may say that you love new media. Instead of laying out why you dislike children, emphasize your love of travel and saving money. In a jury pool, don’t lie. Instead, focus on the qualities you have that you know they want. Express your commitment to fairness, level-headed thinking and agreeability. You can also say that despite your experiences, you will wait to make a judgment until after the facts have been revealed.

Once on a jury, if you realize that the defendant has broken an unfair law or that the penalty is much too harsh, such as in drug cases with mandatory minimum sentencing, there is something you can do. Robert suggests pushing for jury nullification, which is when a jury substitutes its own interpretation of the law or disregards the law entirely in reaching a verdict. “

“A jury can find someone not guilty, not because they didn’t commit the act, but because the charge is unfair or what the person is accused of is relatively harmless or even more likely, that the mandatory penalty that the jury knows the conviction will trigger is wildly inappropriate. Instead of a mandatory 10-year prison sentence, the jury may think it’s more appropriate and just for the person standing trial to go to drug treatment, get a slap on the wrist or have the case acquitted.”

Armed with this knowledge, prepare yourself, wear a nice outfit and stay calm. If after all that, you can’t get on a jury, consider getting more involved with an organization like PROP in NYC or Critical Resistance nationally.

I was texting with an old college friend, when she told me that a mutual friend recently had a baby. To be nice, I asked if the baby was a boy or a girl. Immediately she texted me that my question feeds into sexism and transphobia. If text messages can be awkward, things got awkward. I didn’t even reply and we haven’t been in contact since. First of all, she is rude and second of all, her statement isn’t dealing with reality that gender actually exists. Should I even bother to engage in this?

Texting is a form of communication where speed is of higher value than thoughtfulness. At the same time, someone can make dramatic statements and then disappear without a peep. As any teenager can tell you, texting is a gaping hole equal parts passive aggressive emoticons and weird comments ripe for overanalysis. Assuming you actually like this person and want a relationship — hard to tell from your letter — now is the time to gather more information.

Judith Butler, renowned author of the visionary queer theory staples “Gender Trouble” and “Bodies that Matter,” was kind enough to weigh in on your question. “Probably best to reply, note that you did not mean anything sexist or transphobic in posing the question as you did.” Instead of saying you were just “being nice,” what you may mean is that “you were only following social protocols that do require that when you hear that a human being has come into the world the first question tends to be that of gender.”

Judith also adds, “this is a rather fascinating question, and perhaps it is best to break with social protocol in order to find out why it is constituted in this way, and what any of us can do about it. No reason to break a friendship on account of this impasse. It seems like a really productive conversation could be had.” And not over text message.

The Leftist Ethicist is not intended as a replacement or substitute for financial, medical, legal or other professional advice. It’s just my opinion! What’s yours? Talk back in the comments! Send questions about ethical dilemmas to

ZEEK is presented by The Jewish Daily Forward | Maintained by