Talking to Strangers


Talking to Strangers

By Jonathan Kallay

 

Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education
By Danielle S. Allen
University of Chicago Press, 2004, 232 pp.

 

Danielle S. Allen’s Talking to Strangers may sound, from its title, like a self-help book for the pathologically shy. But the book, authored by the recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (known colloquially as the “genius” grant), is considered by some to be one of the most important pieces of political theory of the decade.

 

The 2004 book has appeared, for instance, on the reading lists of three out of four courses I’ve taken in recent years at the policy and theory wing of the University of Washington’s College of Education. And each course was taught by a different instructor.


Indeed, the title itself is derived from the book’s thinnest conceit, one from which Allen thankfully attempts to squeeze only limited mileage: The notion that “Don’t talk to strangers” — the common exhortation made to children — has created a social environment that is not conducive to cultural competency and political understanding.

 

As is so often the case, the book’s subtitle, Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown v. Board of Education, is far more indicative of the work’s central themes. Better still is the small collection of figures appearing in the text — Will Counts’ photograph of Hazel Bryan Massery cursing Elizabeth Eckford during the Battle of Little Rock, the frontispiece to Hobbes’ Leviathan, a cover from The New York Times — around which Allen crafts her masterful exegesis.


These images provide powerful visual metaphors, underlining the fact that Allen is concerned primarily with metaphor itself, and, how we use it to conceive of our nationhood and construct sets of “citizenly habits.” According to Allen, while the events of 1954–65 exposed the reigning metaphor of “oneness” as a front for systemic marginalization and subjugation, we cling to it because we have not yet established satisfactory new ones.

 

Consequently, new habits — particularly those that can create trust out of distrust — have failed to evolve. Allen examines the theoretical underpinnings of how the idea of “the people” is conceived with readings from Hobbes through Habermas and presents a new conception, one capable, in her view, of producing habits that reduce distrust, with the assistance of Aristotle and Ralph Ellison.


Readers, especially those of an activist bent, may be wondering why Allen, an African American discussing interracial conflict, places such emphasis on distrust. Shouldn’t the point be justice? But, she reminds us, trust is a necessary ingredient without which no society can properly function — and nothing produces distrust as well as the continued, unreciprocated sacrifices of one segment of the population on behalf of the greater good. While describing a framework of “political friendship” for building trust between citizens, Allen serves as an eloquent and potent advocate for transformational, redistributive justice.



Jonathan Kallay

Jonathan Kallay is a software developer, a former public school teacher, and a student of the philosophy of education at the University of Washington. He lives in Seattle with his wife and son.

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