I spent a little time recently trying to dream up a name for this new weekly column. I tried to distill in my mind the most essential and useful work that journalism offers society in a single phrase, and I ended up with talking with strangers.
From the first day that I worked as journalist 29 years ago, the toughest and most rewarding part of the job has always been this single bit – walking up to perfect strangers and having the chutzpah, the fabulous bad manners, to start asking questions.
So I Googled “talking with strangers” and I read a couple of books, and lo and behold, I discovered that the ancient Greeks considered talking with strangers – they called it “xenia” or “love of strangers” – an essential civic practice. They saw this form of hospitality not merely as a polite thing to do, but as an absolutely required Athenian duty.
For the Greeks, talking with
strangers was a way to glean troves of new and useful ideas to put to use
themselves. Socrates used it to hone his debating chops. But most of all,
xenia was a national security policy for ancient Greece because it helped
catch wind of plots against Athens that always were brewing nearby on the
This got me wondering. America’s
foreign policy and predominant mood today isn’t xenia but its opposite,
xenophobia, an unreasonable yet still gut-grabbing fear of strangers.
If we flipped that around and made
xenia instead of xenophobia our national obsession, would we be doing
better? Would we be happier, more popular in the world, and safer?
Could xenia become the ethical
basis of a more generous, inspiring, imaginative and realistic citizenship
Which brought me to my main Google
treasure – a
dazzling debate on just these questions between two political
philosophers, Danielle Allen and Dana Villa, on Chicago Public Radio a
while back. Their recorded conversation is the richest and most suggestive
discussion of this topic I’ve ever encountered.
Allen, who joined the School of Social Science at the Institute
for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. about a year ago, argued
strongly that xenia is the paramount civic practice. She recalled
the classic schoolyard admonition — “Don’t ever talk to strangers!” —
and she called for new, xenia-based American social values to counteract
xenophobia’s corrosive effects.
“The averting of eyes is a habit
of citizenship,” Allen said. “We need a different habit. We need to prove
ourselves to other citizens to try to build trust. We must talk to
strangers in order to learn more about what’s out there in our polity, and
what our world is like, so that when it comes time to make choices about
national policies, we have a good database to draw on.”
"Too Much Trust"
Villa, a professor at Notre Dame
and a specialist in Socrates, argued with equal persuasiveness that xenia,
while useful and important, is the lesser of two civic virtues, the prime
one being the will to fight dangerous national policies with the truth.
“I don’t think that distrust is
the problem,” Villa said. “I think there is too much trust, too much trust
in government, too much deference to authority. At the national level, the
talking with strangers model breaks down and we have to focus on fighting
against the way that prejudices and popular opinion congeals to give a
seeming mandate to fairly radical and extremely dangerous national
Journalism is in chaos these days
with many newspapers and other news media closing, downsizing and changing
their business models, often by increasing celebrity and lifestyle stories
and decreasing news.
Many journalists and citizens are
seeking a return to basic guiding principles, and I think Villa and Allen
throw journalism a lifeline.
They offer an interlocking pair of
axioms of enormously inspiring common sense, ethical depth, descriptive
power and potentially practical use to journalism and society.
Dana Villa’s axiom is already
familiar and, in an ultimate sense, probably the more important of the
two: society needs citizens to speak truth to power. It’s more
important because if power doesn’t hear and act on the truth, ultimately
we all may die.
Local to Global
But Allen’s axiom – society
needs to value and teach the practice of talking with strangers — is
the actual stepwise method to reach that end. It’s the local practice that
starts in the breast of a single individual person, then builds outwards
to embrace neighbors and small communities and finally the state, the
nation, and the world.
Talking with strangers and
speaking truth to power are continuous and interlocking, linked as means
and end. We’re all quite familiar and comfortable with the second part of
the equation, but we haven’t considered the first part for a couple of
It’s time to dust off xenia and
give it a spin.
Copyright @ 2008 The