"I seek to discern the different analytical techniques Aristotle brings to bear on the problem of what justice is" (Allen, 2004). What is interesting to be noticed is that even in the beginning of the book, when presenting the racial segregation at the high school in Little Rock, Allen does not turn to religion to explain or condemn the practice, but to the social principles of the Greek philosopher (Morris, 2006).
Some of these principles promoted by Aristotle and used by Danielle Allen could be succinctly presented as follows:
fluidity of our conceptual universe the power / or lack of power of persuasion the art of generating trust the difference between means and intentions friendship and justice - "if men are friends, there is no need for justice between them whereas merely to be just is not enough - it is also necessary to be friends" (Allen 2004 quoting Aristotle) - friendship is hereby presented in terms of politics, not just social virtues the interchangeability of friendship and successful citizenship liberality, magnanimity, courage interaction, speech, living together with strangers and acquaintances" (Allen, 2004)
The author of Talking to Strangers looks at the works of Aristotle through the lens of the Plato's writings and compares the two. Aristotle for instance argues the existence of an art to generate trust, whereas Plato does not believe in it. Their opinions also vary relative to the power of persuasion.
Another relevant source is Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, from which Allen adopts the concepts of social equality, based on a chain of mutual responsibilities and obligations. Given this chain, the members of society would be better able to interact and trust one another, taking one more step towards the society of civil democracy. The same idea was used by Martin Luther King, but instead of chain of mutual obligations, he refers to the social connectivity as an "inescapable network of mutuality," bringing Americans together at all times. Allen embraces this vision and further states that achieving it requires the individual sacrifice of all society members.
The historic views of Martin Luther King are also revealed by the mentioning of the "I Have a Dream" speech. In this, King spoke about the equal rights of blacks and whites, and the hope that one day the black men and women would enjoy the same rights as the white men and women. He believed that a stable society could not be reached unless this day comes. "There will be neither rest nor tranquillity in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges" (Allen 2004 quoting Martin Luther King).
Aside Plato, Aristotle and Martin Luther King, the UPS Founding Professor also uses the historical approach to the writing of Jurgen Habermas and Thomas Hobbes, coming to disagree with both authors. Habermas militates for a "disinterested communication" and Hobbes states that life is "nasty, brutish and short." "She (Danielle Allen) quickly but persuasively concludes that such "disinterested communication" is of no real assistance in the resolution of conflict. For Allen, Thomas Hobbes and his view that life is "nasty, brutish, and short" in societies without strong government fares far better than Habermas's perspectives as intellectual building blocks. In the end, however, she insists that Habermas's preoccupation with institutional strictures misses the importance of expressive and persuasive communication" (Morris, 2006).
The conclusions of the numerous observations made point out to a need to renounce the old habits and replace them with new ones. These old habits refer to behavioural patterns, actions or reactions within social interactions. The need to adopt new techniques is explained by the fact that newer approaches to the civil society would:
increase the trust among society members ensure the equality and equal rights of all members of the civil society social prosperity and understanding can only be accomplished through sacrifice (Agamemnon's sacrifice of his daughter for the benefit of the community) ultimately, we would be able to achieve the model of a democratic citizenship based on political friendship
An interesting fact is that throughout the entire book, Danielle Allen does not use the word "racism," but that of interracial distrust. There are two reasons for it - first of all, the word racism carries a heavy baggage of historical misconduct towards the black and the matter is up to today extremely controversial. Then, the second reason is that racial mistrust is somehow different from racism. In this order of ideas, racism simply reveals the years of hardships the backs had to suffer from the part of the whites. Interracial distrust on the other hand points out that the negative feelings are revealed by all races across the globe, not just by whites towards blacks. "Interracial distrust, in contrast, captures the fact that negative feelings flow all ways across multiple racial and ethnic lines" (Interview with Danielle Allen, 2004).
The book is of a relatively short length (it has even been called a long essay), but the 232 pages are sufficient to express the thoughts of the author. Allen expresses herself in a concise, yet clear manner. The information is delivered in a way that is understandable to both the expert as well as the novice sociologist. The difficulty in understanding the book however resides in the large amounts of information presented. Therefore, despite the concise and easy formulations, it is rather difficult for the novice to understand at all times the background and context to an issue discussed.
5. Final Remarks
Danielle Allen is a renowned university professor who focused most parts of her academic studies on correlating the historical theories with the contemporaneous context. A relevant example in this sense is her book Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. The less than 300-page book is a thesis on why should society members interact better and why they should cast away traditional approaches and replace them with newer ones. In a single phrase, the book suggests that we need to talk to strangers in order to develop a more stable and trustworthy society.
Otherwise put, Danielle Allen suggests that we no longer act in accordance with the values we are taught as children. Instead of not talking to strangers, we should talk to strangers. This would result in a stronger society, a more welcoming, reliable and stable one.
Allen's ideas draw back on the works of numerous personalities, such as Plato, Aristotle or Martin Luther King. Each and every one of them somehow influences Talking to Strangers. The Aristotelian-inspired model of citizenships reveals how the society would be better if the individuals were better to each other. The most relevant statement is that according to which laws would not be required if all individuals acted on the principles of friendship, both as a social value as well as political friendship.
Just like any other piece of writing, Allen's book reveals both strengths and weaknesses. The most significant strength is that it relies on the works of several personalities which made a change in the course of history. However, its weakness resides in that the model is utopic and its implementation would be rather impossible to achieve. Despite this however, Talking to Strangers is an interesting work, especially because it offers a discussion on race from the perspective of civil and political rights.
Allen, D., 2004, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship Since Brown V. Board of Education, University of Chicago Press
Morris, L., 2006, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship, Journal of American History
2008, the Institute for Advanced Study, http://www.ias.edlast accessed on December 4, 2008…