06/22/2011 12:05 pm ET Updated Aug 22, 2011

Are We as a Culture on a Mean Streak? Do We Reason Just To Win?

"Shame is dead, officially dead in American public life," Mark Shields has observed. He's not alone in this view. Even Tom Hanks, ever optimistic, believes that while 80 percent of people are good -- the rest are crooks and liars.

How mean-spirited so many of us have become -- how quickly and how frequently we demean others. Critical argument in the U.S. media is no longer about seeking truth to correct or sustain our formative values but rather it is about winning so that others might lose.

Maya Angelou believes we have reached a place where virtue is no longer valued: "The mention of virtue is ridiculed, and even the word itself has fallen out of favor." Appreciation and respect for gentleness and civility have subsided. Because we have let the "positive particulars" in our lives atrophy, Angelou has noted, "they have been replaced by degeneracy."

Of course, there are many wonderful people whose lives exemplify the best we can be. Occasionally, we celebrate them publicly, but we do so because they are the exceptions. They are the kind persons who haven't abandoned their values for ephemeral triumphs over people with whom they disagree.

This is not to say we should abandon criticism, suppress our views and fall silent. As Winston Churchill noted, "Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function of pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things."

We could, though, take more care when considering the mistakes of others. Frauds, cads and crooks deserve more than disapproval. But treating anyone who has humiliated himself or let us down in some way as deserving of eternal and unrelenting disgrace accomplishes nothing but lowering all boats. When we fail to see someone's current wrong in light of their prior accomplishments, or when "journalists" beat them to a pulp in the mass media in order to drive up their ratings or pump up their own egos, things are going too far. We risk people who are largely good being trapped in far too wide a net of self-serving media driven disdain.

You may think I'm just talking about people like Anthony Weiner, but I'm not -- though the extent of coverage of his failings has been extraordinary. Our leaders should behave in ways that are exemplary and admirable or they should find another line of work, as he has apparently decided to do. But when errors by adolescent singers and actors are examined with excruciating detail in supposedly respectable media outlets -- taken out of context and rehashed with delight -- how does anyone truly benefit? When comedians like Letterman and Leno constantly belittle relatively defenseless people who have stumbled in their lives, just to get a cheap laugh, isn't that a bad sign?

Doesn't mass exposure of non-felonious frailty, which sometimes involves mental illness, tell young persons that the world is full of people ready to disparage others at the drop of a hat while papering over their own faults? When there are only winners and losers, aren't our choices too narrow and the options for resolution nearly nonexistent?

How do we find a way back? Certainly it must involve placing a greater value on effective, honest reasoning and expressions of sincere emotion. And we need to expect that much of ourselves if we want to do so of others. A furor has recently developed among respected philosophers over whether reason has become merely a way to win an argument rather than a path to insight. It's not an entirely new perspective, but one worth revisiting.

If we bother to reason at all, far too many of us do so only to confirm our views. We react with vitriol to challenge, and in the winning damage our ability to change for the better. We need to learn and apply ways to respond to others that don't dismiss their value as people. We should teach those ways to our children and demonstrate them to our peers -- start more gatherings and even family discussions with a focus on a goal that is not the emergence of a single winner but a constructive way forward.

When sound reasoning no longer holds promise because the opposition will lie and cheat to get its way and be admired for doing so, we arrive indeed where Maya Angelou warned we were going. Before the seemingly endless election season resumes, before we abandon friends because they are not of our political persuasion, before we demean others because they fail to see the world as we do, we should stop and think. What does this tell our children? Does it help make them insular thinkers or, worse, not thinkers at all? What are we making of ourselves? And just when did we stop learning just to be sure we're right?

Kathleen also blogs at Comebacks at Work. She is currently writing a book on the growing mean streak in American culture.