What in Heaven’s Name Are We Modeling for Our Kids?

Yes, this is another response to the latest Ann Coulter kerfuffle. Coulter, who spews bile, dresses provocatively and, apparently laughs all the way to the bank, is raking in piles of publicity. One thing we can all agree on: The woman knows how to market herself.

I take issue with some of the ways she interprets statistics, and I don’t agree with her main premise that victimhood is the new black—or words to that effect. None of that, however, is necessarily relevant. What Coulter does, with the full complicity of her alleged enemy the mainstream media, is create a sideshow.She takes such issues as single motherhood, 9/11, homosexuality, the media and uses them as platforms to say things that are designed to get a polarized reaction. It’s just like what a toddler does to try to get a rise out of his or her mother, and it usually works.

Coulter’s stock in trade in fomenting outrage—an easy and basically useless, though highly entertaining emotion when done well. Look at the blogs and the comments online. What you’ll find is a chorus of people on both sides of the issue having a cathartic good time spewing their own opinions into the ether.

At the end of it all, I’m left wondering: What purpose does it serve? Certainly the networks profit from increased audiences. Booksellers profit. Coulter profits and paves the way for more of the same, but what change has she effected? People remain as polarized as they were before. What I don’t see, from anyone, is a substantive discussion of the issue. There is no cogent, or reasoned distillation of the facts, and there is no discussion at all of the thinking behind the statements. In opposition, there is no serious questioning of intellectual premises or interpretation of data. There is simply the call and response of charged statement and outraged reaction. It makes a good show, but does anyone stop and ask whether or not these are appropriate topics to treat in this manner? For those of you who may remember “Dynasty,” all of this brouhaha reminds me of Alexis and Crystal brawling in a fountain in their Bob Mackie gowns. It was ridiculous.

The problem for me comes when we create entertainment out of the serious issues of our day and when we model this kind of behavior as acceptable to our kids through the medium of TV.

The inevitable casualty of this is reasoned, civilized discourse because that is the diametric opposite of entertainment—at least as it is broadly understood.

This is what the media wants and the market demands. Coulter is a savvy student of the market, and she knows that the essence of marketing (and showbiz) is to give them what they want. Fair enough. Take away the Bratz-inspired fashions and the facile quips, and I suspect that Coulter is one smart cookie. She knows what works, and no one can blame her for delivering it. Nor does anyone want to—she’s making too many people rich doing it.

But what I wonder is where do we teach our children to distinguish between entertainment and argument? We are modeling and validating a kind of behavior that is anti-intellectual. We’re telling them that one doesn’t have to be informed or thoughtful; one just has to be loud and willing to talk over anyone else in the room to cow them into silence. Too often what is presented as “argument” is often merely brawling with words. How do we help them to understand that a quick retort and a glib, media friendly bon mot is not intellectual discourse?

I recently had the opportunity to review more than a dozen college essays for applications from young people. Several of them were truly impressive, but the ones that were not all failed for the same reason. Slick language and trying to play to an audience ultimately revealed an inherent shallowness—not to say vacuity—that was troubling. When I spoke with the writers, none of them really understood that they hadn’t really said anything; that they had neither a premise or argument and no meaningful conclusion. They defended themselves saying, for instance, “Well, I thought it was cool.” Cool works on posters and in advertising, not, at least I hope not, in higher education. You need to know what you’re talking about. At the end of the day when the smoke clears, that’s what determines who gets ahead.

I say let Coulter rant and rave. She herself has even called what she does “comedy.” Let the audience revel in its outrage and be dazzled by the fireworks, but let’s not pretend that the opinion-driven screeds are legitimate news or anything other than entertainment.

We do ourselves a disservice when we settle for emotion in place of reason in any situation. Easier said than done, I know. Emotion comes easily without any conscious effort and is the sine qua non of most TV, regardless of topic. Look at all the ways the political campaigns were emotionally manipulated from all sides. These guys knew what they were doing. They had to get people to pull one lever or the other—just as an advertiser wants you to pick one brand of cereal over another. That’s an emotional reaction, however much we want to tell ourselves otherwise.

Reason, on the other hand, takes time and study, and generally makes bad TV by contemporary standards. What I’m concerned about is not what Coulter does or the shows that give her a platform. Last time I checked, it’s still possible to turn off the TV—or turn it up. Let’s, however, make sure our kids know how to distinguish the difference between real argument and a show whose primary purpose is to sell, whether books, advertising or the bona fides of any media personality from Coulter to Whoopi.

Let’s have kids read Aristotle to learn discourse. (I’m not kidding, and it’s not that hard for many high school students—and it’s very interesting.) Let’s teach kids to be skeptical consumers of media and, hopefully, to think for themselves. And for heaven’s sake let’s teach them the difference between entertainment and argument. For entertainment, we’ve got the new season of “American Idol” to look forward to. My DVR is already set.

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