Trivialization of America: Where has argument gone?

I disagree. Whether by personality or profession, I am compelled to take exception. Growing up, I liked adults much better than I did other children, thanks to their superior arguments. Now, as a law professor, I teach people how to sue.

I disagree with myself, too. I am not so sure I should be so contrary. Yet our diverse democracy works at its best -- indeed, works at all -- only through robust discussion. In discussion, the most important question, to which of course there can be no right answer, is "Why?"


I have achieved my life goal of being a curmudgeon prematurely, but I wonder why so few of us are able or care to generate critical thinking and public discourse. We label one side "racist" and the other side "politically correct."

Trying to train advocates, I find that even my best students do little more than announce "I feel this" or assert "I believe that." They assume that making a statement makes the case. If they are challenged, their response is typically, "Well, I have the right to feel as I do. Plus, you can believe what you want." They have confused the concept that all of us have a right to free speech with the conceit that each of us is right in our speeches.


Along similar lines, many writers are observing that our civic culture is increasingly meaningless. The University of Pennsylvania has just published the results of its project to study the problem (Public Discourse in America: Conversation and Community in the Twenty-First Century, 304 pages, $29.95). The Ivy-League school's president, Judith Rodin, along with the director of a center set up to study these issues, Stephen Steinberg, gathered professors and journalists in a three-year series of conferences held in Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington, and Los Angeles. They tried to model the deliberative processes they champion as necessary for our nation.

The contributions demonstrate the potential for a civic culture that is "thick" rather than "thin," to use the metaphor embraced by several writers. Steinberg reflects on the virtual communities flourishing on the Internet. Technology allows the disabled and the physically isolated to join the communities and frees us from having to interact in real time, but those communities are limited because they lack "real work to do together." Steinberg argues that a community can be sustained only by such genuine tasks.

Our only consensus is that everyone is entitled to any opinion, with the contradictory caveat that nobody should offend anyone. The art of persuasion is reduced to advertising and propaganda or equated with coercion and deception. Derek Bok, the former president of Harvard, critiques the "great health care debate" over the Clinton administration's defeated reform plans. He spares none of the sides: Interest-group opponents confused the issues; the White House failed to explain the details; newspapers covered the controversy without the substance; and everyone ignored areas of bipartisan agreement.

Appropriately, the writers who lament the trend toward triviality part company on the causes of the crisis.

As exemplified by Allan Bloom and his The Closing of the American Mind, conservatives warn that hippie relativism erodes intellectual standards. Despite relying on Greek classics to champion academic elitism, Bloom's 1987 book became a surprise best seller.

Diversity destroys democracy, Bloom and his successors seem to say. Linguist John McWhorter, who provocatively stated -- as an African-American himself -- that some aspects of "black culture" were detrimental to higher learning, has just published a new book identifying casual slang as corrupting much more than eloquence (Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Music and Why We Should, Like, Care, Gotham Books, 279 pages, $26). Law professor David Bernstein concludes that censorship of hate speech shows equality for groups can be achieved only if liberty for individuals is eliminated (You Can't Say That!: The Growing Threat to Civil Liberties From Antidiscrimination Laws, Cato Institute, 197 pages, $20).

Most recently represented by Cass Sunstein, liberals have insisted that deference to authority crushes the creative spirit (Why Societies Need Dissent, Harvard University Press, 246 pages, $22.95). Sunstein describes his studies of the voting behavior of federal judges, but his examples of conformity leading to extremism extends beyond the courtroom to the corporate boardroom and, he notes, to the training of terrorists. We think that what many other people think is probably correct, and we want to be on their good side. Hence, a mob mentality develops.

Democracy requires diversity, Sunstein and his colleagues seem to say. Law professors Mari Matsuda, Charles Lawrence and Richard Delgado insist that acceptance of hate speech deprives members of minority groups of their status as members of society who are entitled to a role in its governance (Words That Wound: Critical Race Theory, Assaultive Speech, and the First Amendment, Westview, 160 pages, $35). They hope we will see how prejudices detract from rather than enhance the goals of free speech.


It may be an excess of neither tolerance nor tradition, but our desire for endless entertainment that overwhelms all else. The late Neil Postman called attention to the detrimental influence of mass media catering to passive consumers for the sake of ratings (Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Viking, 184 pages, $14). In the Penn collection, Neal Gabler -- writing before the recent California election -- says, "Movies are constantly reminding us, subliminally and otherwise, of the importance of being important. ... Arnold Schwarzenegger may kill dozens of bad guys in one of his films, but no one cares about them. ... The only one who matters is Schwarzenegger himself."

Even the appearance of public intellectuals may symbolize the disappearance of an intellectual public. Federal judge Richard Posner, himself the author of many volumes applying strict economic analysis to everything from literature to sex, has declared the current crop of talking heads a disappointment (Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, Harvard University, 408 pages, $29.95).

The pessimism of the latest commentary could be a cause for optimism. Enough people are trying to revive the body politic that it is struggling back to consciousness.

In the Rodin-Steinberg volume, for example, Richard Lapchick offers innovative proposals for making celebrity athletes positive role models for children. Tracing the image of athletes as detrimental role models to roots in stereotypes based on race, Lapchick -- the son of "the first great big man" in basketball, who played for the then all-white Boston Celtics -- acknowledges that professional athletes will be role models whether intellectuals like it or not. He supports orientation seminars for rookies, which would train them to be leaders.

Alternative courses depend on our appreciation of education. Rhetoric has the power to change reality. Even those who choose civility over conflict acknowledge that language is paramount. Linguist Deborah Tannen, who was gently scolding in The Argument Culture: Moving from Debate to Dialogue, (Ballantine, 384 pages, $14) has written several books on the subtleties of gender and cultural differences in communication.

Our agreement to disagree depends on a mutual commitment to basic rules. What we believe is less important than how we came to that perspective and why others ought to come to a similar viewpoint. The ability to change one's mind reveals strength, not weakness. Compromise is not only possible, but also ideal.


Even as we respect everyone, we can recognize that any claim worth making is sure to offend someone. We can test our own feelings and beliefs against facts and logic, constantly cultivating skepticism over dogmatism.

In dialogue, we fail by having the last word. We succeed by giving the next person a reasonable opportunity to reply.

Frank H. Wu is a professor at Howard University Law School and an adjunct professor at Columbia University Law School. Next academic year, he will be a visiting professor at University of Maryland Law School and a Sachs Scholar at the Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, and co-author of Race, Rights and Reparation: Law and the Japanese American Internment. He reviews law-related books for a wide range of periodicals.