The Selfish American

I was called to jury duty this week. (Key word being "duty".)

It was an extraordinary learning experience. In New York State, they’ve eliminated most of the automatic exemptions, so everyone is there–lawyers, doctors, sole proprietors, doesn’t matter.

This is one of the only times you get a look at your neighbors, unguarded, unadorned, completely random.

Here’s what surprised me:
1. lots of people from two parent, single income homes
2. very little sense of civic pride
3. complete distaste for the legal system
4. widespread cynicism about insurance
5. most of all, selfishness.

I live in Westchester County, which is one of the most affluent counties in the USA. There was almost no one in the room who couldn’t afford to spend the two or three days that were required of them (that’s two days every six years). Yet the prevailing attitude was a wide and deep sense of self-importance. Everyone else should serve, just not me.

One dentist concocted an ornate story about a car accident twenty years ago–and how that had soured him on the fairness of the justice system (never mind that here was his chance to make at least one trial fair!) On no less than five occasions he tried to pull strings with a judge or a lawyer or someone to be freed.

As I spent the entire day sitting and watching, the "new selfishness" really became clear. I think it goes like this:

a. in the old days, public works were public. If you contributed to a charity or acted as a volunteer, your peers noticed and you got credit for it. Respected people were respected–at least partly–because they gave to the community.

b. in the last twenty years, the variety of ways to give to your community has increased dramatically. As a result, it’s hard to keep track.

c. a lot of people (respected people) have fallen through the cracks. Neighbors and peers assume that just because you’re financially successful, you must also be a good citizen, even though they can’t actually see that.

d. so the selfish nature of people is rewarded–work more, give less, keep the difference.

There in the jury room, people couldn’t help but revert to type. They couldn’t relax about this forced duty, to just accept it and do it gladly. So they radiated anger and distrust.

Marketers of just about everything need to think really hard about the new selfishness. From politics to recycling to gas mileage to philanthropy to food, it feels to me like people are making decisions in a very different way than their parents did.