November 18, 2013

Off Campus: Henry Fonda character shows how to lead amid angry paralysis

The film ‘12 Angry Men’ provides a lesson in the steps we all can take to stop acting like a hung jury.

PORTLAND — There was a time when it took locating a nuclear plant or an oil pipeline through a community’s backyard to make the public angry.

about the author

Dr. Joseph McDonnell is dean of the College of Management and Human Service at the University of Southern Maine and a member of the faculty of the Muskie School of Public Service.

But nowadays, survey results show the public is angry, really angry, about a host of issues – health insurance, gun control, immigration, ballooning college debt, the gap between the rich and everyone else, the overwhelming sums of money influencing the electoral process and a government that just does not seem to work.

The public remains deeply divided on solutions to these vexing issues but shares a common feeling of being angry.

Many have lost faith in the capacity of the political process to produce desired results, creating an exasperating feeling of powerlessness. Political leaders speak to the public’s fears and tap into its frustration but cannot allay those fears, calm the agitation or resolve the issues that give rise to the anger.

How should we and our public officials deal with this situation? In the 1957 movie “12 Angry Men,” Henry Fonda in his role as Juror No. 8 provides us with timeless insights that might help our leaders and the rest of us address this anger.

The movie is about a New York jury deliberation following the trial of an 18-year-old Puerto Rican man who is charged with murder in the stabbing death of his father and, if convicted, faces death in the electric chair.

The jurors are convinced of the young man’s guilt, all except Fonda’s character, who seeks to prevent a rush to judgment. He questions the competence of the defense attorney despite a preponderance of evidence that points toward guilt – a shaky alibi; two eyewitnesses, including one who said he heard the defendant threaten to kill his father; and testimony identifying the knife used in the stabbing as belonging to the son.

His fellow jurors will hear nothing of Fonda’s doubts in this seemingly open-and-shut case. Finally, to avoid a hung jury, Fonda gambles by asking for a secret ballot, agreeing to vote for conviction if he still stands alone. But one juror breaks from the others, persuaded by Fonda’s courage to stand up against the ridicule of the others.

The story reveals the anger of the all-white, all-male jurors toward immigrants, slum dwellers and disrespectful young people, prejudice that prevents them from even considering whether the defendant might be innocent.

But one by one the jurors begin to doubt their certainty, convinced first by the character of Juror No. 8 and then by the dispassionate breakdown of the evidence. Witnesses are shown to be unreliable, the knife turns out to be commonplace in that neighborhood and the angle of the stabbing makes the shorter son an unlikely suspect.

Fonda keeps his cool but at decisive moments displays his own anger in the form of righteous indignation when his fellow jurors fail to take their obligation seriously. He relies on his antagonists to aid his cause by inciting their passions, baiting the most hardened by calling him a sadist, which provokes him to shout, “I’ll kill him!”

In failing to resolve the pressing issues of our time, we are like the jurors in the movie, locked in a sweltering room convinced our own anger arises from moral indignation, without considering that it may bubble up from blinding self-interest. We seem satisfied to leave society as a hung jury, resigned to have the next generation assume our responsibility.

Fonda teaches us that leadership can emerge from any chair without official title. He leads solely by persuasion through the method of inquiry – asking questions, raising doubts and undermining the certainty of his fellow jurors.

It’s an approach that creates a culture of critical thinkers by single-mindedly pursuing truth without self-interest, forgoing certitude and becoming satisfied with the accumulation of probabilities. In adopting this methodology, Fonda’s fellow jurors are not just persuaded by his advocacy but join him in finding flaws in the case. By the end of the movie, the entire jury embraces this new culture.

Fonda’s leadership style displays what the psychologist Daniel Goleman describes as emotional intelligence, a set of attributes including self-awareness, discipline, persistence and empathy. It is a style that mobilizes the public toward a shared vision by pointing in a direction and inviting others to participate in discovering the best way to arrive at a desired destination.

We can dispel our anger and address our common problems by becoming a nation of Henry Fondas – persuading each other by the courage of our character, pursuing evidence wherever it may lead and taking into account the interests and passions of our fellow citizens.

— Special to the Press Herald

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