September 17, 2009

Talking With Strangers is What Journalism Needs 

By Douglas McGill
The McGill Report

ROCHESTER, MN – I spent a little time recently trying to dream up a name for my new journalism blog devoted to illuminating the links that connect Minnesota to the rest of the world. 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. 

Debating Chops

For the Greeks, talking with strangers was a way to glean troves of new and useful ideas to put to use themselves. Socrates used the practice as a way 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 peninsula.   

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 and journalism? 

Averting Eyes

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 Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ 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 policies.”  

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.  

A Lifeline

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 thousand years.  

It’s time to dust off xenia and give it a spin.  

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