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Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse Paperback – July 30, 1993

ISBN-13: 978-0029118238 ISBN-10: 0029118239 Edition: Reprint

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 236 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press; Reprint edition (July 30, 1993)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0029118239
  • ISBN-13: 978-0029118238
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.9 x 0.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (9 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #272,526 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

From Kirkus Reviews

Here, Harvard Law School professor Glendon argues eloquently and persuasively that modern American political discourse, by emphasizing an ever-expanding catalogue of rights to the exclusion of duties and responsibilities, has lost the central role in civic life envisioned for it by the Founding Fathers. Glendon shows that, in American society, both sides in political debates frame issues in terms of individual rights--flag- burning, domestic relations, and human reproduction, for example- -and that this tendency impedes understanding and compromise. Such stark formulations, she says, ultimately lead to coerced, and often unsatisfying, social arrangements. Glendon makes a compelling case that the American political lexicon lacks a vocabulary for expressing normative and moral concepts that individual Americans understand and value highly, and that the legal culture, with its single-minded emphasis on obtaining civil rights (as opposed to cultivating moral norms), has actually contributed, albeit unwittingly, to the debasement of American political and legal discourse. Glendon calls for the inclusion of the ``missing language of responsibility'' and the ``missing language of sociality'' in American political dialogue, and for an increasing emphasis on individuals' responsibilities to their communities as a necessary concomitant to the rights they exercise. A forceful and valuable analysis of the banality of modern American public debate. -- Copyright ©1991, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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23 of 24 people found the following review helpful By JNeeley@mail.utexas.edu on July 11, 2001
Format: Paperback
Rights talk is ubiquitous in American culture; from the highest political office holder to the lowest convenience store clerk, people invoke rights, often in absurdly stark and overbroad forms, as a way of expressing their desires, interests, and moral and political views. Often such rights claims lead people to say things that are clearly false and/or absurd, such as that they have the right, without qualification, to do whatever they want whenever they want. This custom is made all the more curious by the fact that people seem to know so little about rights themselves. What are rights? Where do they come from? Who has what rights, and how can you tell? When posed with such questions even some rights theorists fall silent.
The curious nature of American rights talk has led an increasing number of people to reject the existence of rights altogether. Rights have, of late, come under serious sustained attack from a variety of quaters, and it's hard not to feel a little sympathy with such critiques. Talk to a guy who thinks you have an absolute sui generis right to own a sub-machine gun a few times, and you will begin to understand why Bentham called rights "nonsense on stilts." Still, rights, and rights talk, lay at the heart of our republic, as well as of the recent attempts to hold foreign dictators to universal moral standards. It would be most unfortunant if a concept that has done so much good in the world turned out to be incoherent.
According to Glendon's book, the problem it not with rights themselves, but with what she calls the "American rights dialect," the particular way in which we speak of rights here and now.
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12 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Joseph P. Tevington on January 7, 2007
Format: Paperback
Among other fascinating points, Professor Glendon maintains that there has been a peculiarly American tendency to exaggerate two rights, to the detriment of others:

* "From the very beginning, the absoluteness of American property rhetoric promoted illusions and impeded clear thinking about property rights and rights in general" (p. 25).

* "Though the 'preferred' rights change from time to time, American legal discourse still promotes careless habits of speaking and thinking about them....exaggerated absoluteness of our American rights rhetoric is closely bound up with its other distinctive traits - a near-silence concerning responsibility, and a tendency to envision the rights bearer as a lone autonomous individual....why does our rhetoric of rights so often shut out relationship and responsibility, along with reality?" (pp. 41 - 46)

* "The major impetus for recognizing a legal right to privacy was the invention, in the nineteenth century, of instantaneous photography, and the development of rapid means of communication....In 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States held in Roe v. Wade that the...right of privacy was 'broad enough to encompass a woman's decision whether or not to terminate her pregnancy'....In the abortion cases that followed and enlarged the scope of Roe, privacy began to show the same thrust toward absoluteness that had characterized property rights in an earlier era....In the United States today,...poor, pregnant women...have their constitutional right to privacy and little else. Meager social support for maternity and childraising...leave such women isolated in their privacy" (pp. 49 - 65).
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Dana R Workman on April 14, 2001
Format: Paperback
I very much enjoyed reading this book & I think I gained much from doing so. Although a lot of space is devoted by the author to anticipating & shooting down arguments those who don't agree with her might offer, she does get her points across rather well. She has a lot to say about the fact that lawyers & judges seem to love talking about rights while they have little to say about obligations. Some of the facts she reports are shocking to read & make it very easy to understand why so many people have so little respect for the legal profession. I must confess I had great difficulty in trying to paraphrase Ms Glendon's assertion, maybe because, as Ms Glendon explains, our court decisions entered a different world, so to speak, in the 1960s period. I strongly recommend the book for anyone interested in the humanities.
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13 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Nancy K. Oconnor on November 8, 2001
Format: Paperback
Glendon puts into perspective the overuse of the idea of individual "rights" and how the emphasis in our legal system not only leads to absurdity, but to the inability of society to discuss very real social problems.
As she puts it (I paraphrase) this discourse is based on the way few men, and fewer women, actually live. For we all live in a complex milieu of family and friends and neigbors, not in isolation.
I especially like her dissection of Rousseau's "primitive man" and how this idea has become the distorted, (again I paraphrase) insisting that when these philosophers discussed the freedom of the primitive man, they somehow neglected to realize that they never bothered to see how the primitive woman or child fit into his life--or into their own life.
This argument is the basis for communitarian ideas, not socialism.
And in an "either or" type argument too often seen in discussions of rights (society versus individual rights) she posits a "but": the idea of individual rights in a complex society where these things are balanced by others, not eliminated.
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