Talking to Strangers

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Citation: Danielle Allen (2004) Talking to Strangers.


Tagged: Philosophy (RSS) NatematiasGenerals (RSS), citizenship (RSS), political philosophy (RSS), philosophy (RSS), civil rights (RSS), chicago (RSS), aristotle (RSS), hobbes (RSS), leviathan (RSS), kant (RSS), ethics (RSS), friendship (RSS)


How can Americans work together on the broad challenges that face us given a history of racism and a democratic tradition that is "at its best... full of contention and fluid disagreement"? In Talking With Strangers, a lecture series turned into a book, classicist and political theorist Danielle Allen argues that "democracy depends on trustful talk among strangers" in ways that dissolve divisions. In the United states, that doesn't seem currently possible, especially given the amount of interracial distrust (XIII).

Nor is mistrust the only problem. Often our mistrust is founded on the facts of people's experiences, and while we might believe that issues like poverty are wider than just race, the race-inflected policy debates and implementation of initiatives for the common good reinforce this mistrust.

In this book, Allen argues that "distrust can be overcome only when citizens manage to find methods of generating mutual benefit despite differences of position, experience, and perspective" (XIX). She reframes the challenge of distrust in terms of citizenship, asks why it has been so hard to build in the U.S., imagines what cooperative citizenship might look like, and then outlines ways that the act of friendship can be politically meaningful.

friendship is not an emotion, but a practice, a set of hard-won, complicated habits that are used to bridge trouble, difficulty, and differences fo personality, experience, and aspiration. Friendship is not easy, nor is democracy. [....] Political friendship begins from this recognition about what we share with the people who live around us and in the same polity. It moves from this recognition of a shared horizon not to a blind trust in one's fellow citizens but rather to a second recognition that a core citizenly responsibility is to prove oneself trustworthy to fellow citizens so that we are better able to ensure that we all breathe healthy air. [....]The politics of friendship requires of citizens a capacity to attend to the dark side of the democratic soul.

Part One: Loss

In this section, Allen reframes the problem of American interracial distrust in terms of problems of citizenship.

Allen starts out with an widely shared from Little Rock in 1957 of Hazel Bryan cursing Elizabeth Eckford, a black student walking to school under desegregation([image here]). Allen that this photograph (and its popularity), taken during a shift from white-only public spaces to more inclusive ones, reveals the assumptions of the time, as well as the challenge that changes in laws also involve changes in the self. Allen goes on to talk about how changes in laws do involve changing notions of the self, and of the self as citizen.

Allen discusses the conversation and "epiphanies provoked" by this photo, as observed in letters to the editor. The first ephany was to replace the myth that citizenship is a set of duties with an idea of citizenship constituted by "long-enduring habits of interaction" (9). Allen argues that "citizens know the deep rules of their society by intuition and habit and become expressly conscious of those rules only when the order they secure is disintegrating" (12). The second myth/epiphany is that of unity--E pluribus unum-- replaced with an epiphany that U.S. democracy involves multiple peoples "all living in the same polity but under different laws, with differential rights and powers, and with different habitual practices of citizenship" (15). One outcome of this ephiphany might be a focus on multilingualism (which promotes conversations) rather than multiculturalism (which promots blocs). The third epiphany, illustrated with Elizabeth Eckford's self-made black/white checkered dress, is that we use symbols to reconstitute ourselves and our society: "if they wish to change their politics, they must clothe themselves in new forms of citizenly action" (23).

Allen traces these epiphanies in the writings of Hannah Arendt and Ralph Ellison on what happened in Little Rock in 1957. In "Reflections on Little Rock,"[1] Arendt arues that de-segregation or discrimination are not political concerns, and that a healthy democracy involved setting them aside. Ellison disagreed, arguing that our social life is full of rituals thare also the foundation of our political structures. Ellison focused on the idea of sacrifice, what happens when in a democracy we are subject to a communal choice is at our expense; "their sacrifice makes collective democratic action possible" (29).

In Invisible Man[2], Ellison "develop[s] criteria for distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate forms of sacrifice, and also to outline a form of citizenship that helps citizens generate trust enough among themselves to manage sacrifice" (29). Ellison argued that the experience of this sacrifice by African Americans led them to recognize about democracy that "the political world cannot be entirely separated from the social world" (30). In this view, the act of Eckford and her parents to endure social abuse "to render functional a legal system" (30).

What does a citizenship founded on loss and disappointment look like, and what do we do with the results--resentment and distrust (36)? Allen points to a common thread in the social contract tradition: the Biblical story of Jepthah, who tragically sacrifices his daughter in order to gain citizenship (38). Allen identifies other sacrifices in American life, from the actions of Eckford to the idea of a "natural" minimum unemployment level agreed on by economists that requires 7 million citizens to be unemployed. Allen describes a moment when the Federal Reserved, concerned about shrinking employment, adjusted interest rates so that unemployment would go back up, with "Blacks and Hispanics absorbing most of the loss" (42).

Since the sacrifice of citizenship prompts anger, resentment, distrust, and fears of security Allen argues that democratic citizenship needs to respond to those fears. "If citizens are to maintain their trust in the institutions of democratic life, they need to see a positive connection between their political membership and their general well-being" (47). The language of the common good, cost-benefit analysis, and "net gain" protect people form those questions.

In this context, Allen introduces her central question: "What approach to loss in politics is compatible with working to sustain networks of democratic trust over the long term?" in a time when "Don't talk to strangers" is a central tenet of society (48)?

Part Two: Why We Have Bad Habits

In this section, Allen asks why cooperative citizenship has been so hard to build in the U.S., and why we're so bad at dealing with loss or generating trust.

Allen starts by pointing to the work of Habermas on "how citizens should talk to each other" in politics, and his focus on unanimity. In Habermas's view, participants harmonize their views in a public sphere, casting their ideas in terms of universal principles and avoiding subjective, emotional speech (54). These ideas have been critiqued on two counts: firstly, that personal interests and loss are natural to democracy. Secondly, rhetoric is also key. Allen argues that another weakness with Habermas is the way he ignores the issue of trust. Unpacking Habermas's views on rhetoric, Allen argues that Habermas, in his search for consensus, agreement-based politics, "defines the complexities of human interaction... as external to the basic processes of speech," banishing trust and distrust outside of political speech (62). It's a Kantian, Hobbesian notion where "persuasion is set in opposition to truth" (64) and where accepting reason means trusting authoritarian decisions established by the sovereign (67).

Where does this come from? Allen traces Hobbes's use of "the people" and his work on metaphors for imagining this fundamental notion of democracy. Before Hobbes, "the people" either meant the poor, or a wider idea of a heterogenous population. Hobbes gives this term a new meaning, with a powerful illustration: "the people" are the institutions of public life, and they remain "the people" so long as people continue to trust them. The problem with this approach, which replaces the idea of rhetoric or disagreement with the idea of institutions, is that institutions are not guaranteed to be trusted.

To outline an alternative to Hobbes, Allen argues that we are hampered by the pursuit of perfect ideals, when we should actually be aiming for imperfect ones-- instead of pursuing unanimity, we should be aiming for a way to "generate trust out of distrust" (85). Instead of one-ness, we should aim for wholeness. To make this argument, Allen offers a summary of the deliberation in Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics and Rhetoric. Drawing from Hobbes's laws of nature, Allen argues that:

Reciprocity does not merely aid the conclusion of agreements that are achieved primarily through reason. Instead, it is one of the substantive questions at stake in all disputes within a consensually based political community.

Judging this impossible, Hobbes reached for authoritarianism; Allen wants to revisit it, to establish an "imperfect ideal" so that like doctors we can think "about curing but also about treating the incurable, for this too is life." (98).

Part Three: New Democratic Vistas

In this section, Allen outlines "political thinkers who have dropped clues about the political aspirations and techniques that may suit efforts to deal with the inevitability of sacrifice, loss, and distrust in democracy" (102).

The first of these is the idea of sacrifice. Allen offers a reading of Ellison's Invisible Man to describe the conditions where sacrifice is justifiable and where not, asking:

  • Who sacrifices for whom?
  • Are sacrifices voluntary?
  • Are they honored?
  • Are they reciprocated?

"These questions constitute the substance of a citizenship guided by solidarity or brotherhood" (118).

The next is the an idea of citizen friendship that includes justice. It includes distributive justice, associated with proportional notions of equality. It also involves "straightening-out justice," solving transactions "that have gone bad between people" (122). And the good distributed or straightened out is "agency," according to Allen. Allen outlines ideas of ethical friendship and utility friendship -- where utility friendship is what we might associated with citizenship, a friendship focused on justice and involve n"negotiations over how to distribute power, honor, and material benefit" (129). Allen argues that this kind of friendship is handled through processes of reciprocity and gift giving (131).

Allen argues among citizenship, friendship, and justice, "only friends fully succeed at converting rivalry into equitability; wherever such a conversion occurs, people ecome friends" (137).

Allen concludes with a normative idea of citizenship as friendship; "we might simply ask about all our encounters with others in our polity, 'would I treat a friend this way?'" (140). Furthermore, friendship helps us understand the importance of subjectivity and rhetoric in political life. Citing Aristotle, she notes that "persuasion is treated solely as the speech of a friend.... those who are stronger than others force people to do things, but friends persuade each other" (142). o

What difference does this make to the issues of trust and distrust in society? Drawing from Aristotle, Allen unpacks a variety of definitions of distrust, trust, alongside fifferent kinds of speech acts, connected with definitions of friendship, goodwill, and hatred as habits rather than emotions.

Allen argues that good will is a stance that we can use rhetoric to convince others to take on similar good will and generate trust, "a new mode of citizenship in friendship understood not as an emotion but a practice" (156).

Epilogue: Powerful Citizens

Allen concludes by advocating "talking to strangers as a healthy path to political majority and seek[ing] to cultivate modes of citizenship that provide citizens with the security and self-confidence of full-fledged political agency" (165). She argues that citizenship is "not a matter of institutional duties but of how one learns to negotiate loss and reciprocity." Secondly, she argues that "unrestrained self-interest does not make the world go round but corrodes the bases of trust" (165). Allen imagines what a friendship-oriented citizenship might look like in her neighborhoods in Chicago: "simply traveling around my polis, learning more about it, talking to the strangers in it, and learning the manifold lessons they have to teach area not enough.... this nascent interpersonal trust will never mature into full-blown political friendship unless it is given serious political work to do" (174).

The book concludes with a set of proposals to the University of Chicago Faculty Senate around fostering better citizenship in the university internally and in relation to the surrounding community. (175)

Theoretical and practical relevance:

This book offers a rethinking of the idea of citizenship and a recognition of the fundamental importance of loss and suffering to democracy. The poetic and conceptual clarity of the book wanes as Allen revisits debates about the role of rhetoric and institutions in society, attempting to claim a space for subjectivity, equality, and justice in ideas of citizenship and public life. The second half is where the book's origin as a series of lectures, designed to evoke and connect a wide range of scholarship, leaves the concluding sections a bit unfocused (or perhaps just not long enough to fully establish Allen's claims), not quite delivering as strong an image of friendship as Hobbes's image of the Leviathan that Allen attempts to unseat. On the other hand, this may be a strength. Allen's book offers a rich set of analogies for anyone seeking to reimagine the meaning of citizenship in 21st century democracies, doing a powerful job of connecting the civil rights era and the work of Ralph Ellison to long debates in political history about trust, institutions, and the role of rhetoric in society.

Notable References

  1. Arendt, H. (1959). Reflections on little rock. Dissent, 6(1), 45-56. Chicago.
  2. Ellison, R. (1995). Invisible Man. 1952. New York: Vintage, 577-84.