From Voice to Influence: An Interview with Political Philosopher Danielle Allen (Part Two)

A key debate in this book centers around the relative values of what Howard Gardner described as “disinterestedness” and what you discuss in terms of “rooted cosmopolitanism.” Both seem to be shifts away from the positionally we have come to associated with identity politics. Yet, arguing on behalf of our own communities has gained new urgency in the wake of Ferguson. So, how might we reconcile that urgent need to protect our own interests with the other kinds of civic virtues that you and your contributors discuss?

Disinterestedness, rooted cosmopolitanism, identity politics, and the urgent need to argue on behalf of our own communities in the wake of Ferguson. How do these things relate to each other? This question leads perfectly into the terrain of the sorts of ethical framworks that need to be developed once one recognizes that not only deliberative but also adversarial and prophetic forms of speech are legitimate in the public sphere and beyond that, not only legitimate but necessary.

What you see in the book in the chapters on disinterestedness by Howard Gardner and on rooted cosmopolitanism by Agnel Parham ad myself is an effort to start the work of figuring out ethical frameworks for “egalitarian participatory democracy.” While most of the contributors to the volume start from a recognition of the improtance of arguing on behalf of one’s own community (because no one else is going to do it!), Howard wanted to push back on us, to make the case that there is something worthwhile and that should be preserved in the disinterested stance, even as we go forward with political paradigms that embrace identity based advocacy (whether adversarial or prophetic).

This was a hard conversation for all of us, as these two postions were both passionately held, and perhaps also disinterestedly, although of course it’s harder to tell on the latter point. I came to agree with Howard but also to think that the important point about disinterestedness is that it is the right regulative ideal for certain roles and for certain times and places.

The ethical questions for me are both how to know what those times and places are and how to know what the ethical parameters are for the legitimate deployment of a disinterested stance. Let me sketch those briefly, and some of the parameters for adversarial and prophetic modes of engagement. This may help you have more of a sense of how the ethics of egalitarian participatory democracy in fact require a pluralistic sense of the array of regulative ideals that should guide the just deployment of civic agency.

Those who adopt a disinterested role in the appropriate contexts also need practices of testing and counteracting self-interest; they need practices for testing claims of universality made about chosen outcomes or direction; and they need to routinely consume high-quality information on wide array of issues, not only those in regard to which they have a direct interest.

For those who will adopt a prophetic or advocacy stance, and seek to achieve equitable forms of efficacy, the developmental burdens of civic agency involve a need to develop clarity about interests and goals, understanding of the “levers of change” in any given society; skill at “frame-shifting,” or changing the terms of the discourse and agenda; and ethical parameters for means/ends reasoning.

For those who dwell primarily in the adversarial domain, the skills of the two other domains are both relevant, and in addition, there is a need to understand the parameters of “fair fighting,” an ethical topic that the literature of sports has probably done the most to develop.

The focus of this book is on the political lives of youth. I know this was a bit of a shift in your own thinking, since your previous work was not especially youth-focused. What did you learn by adopting this frame? What do you think gets missed if we distinguish between youth and other kinds of political agents?

From the point of view of political theory, the focus on youth was incredibly salutary, and not one we come to so easily on our own in my home discipline. The first great benefit of a youth-focus is that it forces once to confront the nature of political experience for those who are not fully enfranchised. Youth can’t yet vote or they can’t yet run for office and so on. And yet many youth are impressively, political, even if they wouldn’t use that word for themselves.

As with Dreamers and transnational activists, youth political experience is hard to see within the framework of traditional public sphere theory. Once one can see youth political agency and engagement, that is, their civic agency, one comes to realize that they are filling an incredibly important discovery function for the polity as a whole. Youth are often pointing to the importance of issues–like incarceration, food politics, sexual assault, and fluid sexualities–that haven’t made it on to the radar for older people and yet are also defining our socio-political landscape.

So the group of authors in my volume mostly turned to the study of youth in a pretty instrumental way, recognizing that the opportunities and challenges presented by digital and social media had made greater inroads into youth culture than for older cohorts. Yet we realized that our substantive gains were substantial and went far beyond an opportunity to refine our understanding of the impact of technology.

Youth just are part of the story of the political life of any given nation, and of the globe. Understanding their civic agency should take place alongside studies of the civic agency of older adults. And the payoff will be a richer understanding of the big socio-poitical problems confronting all of us.

A key concept running through the book is civic agency, which at some places you link to the notion of citizenship. Yet, your book also accounts civic agency on the parts of those who have been denied some or all of the rights associated with citizenship, whether the DREAMers who are fighting to be accepted as citizens or black youth who have often been victims of voter suppression efforts. So, what can we say about the ways civic agency can be exercised by those who lack the full rights of citizenship?

One of the important things that has emerged with the development of new technolgoies and social media is that it is now easier to pull important levers outside of political institutions: through the targeting of decision-makers in civil society and the corporate world; through social movements that can put pressure on political leaders; and though efforts to change culture and social norms.

While political institutions and the legislative agenda are still fundamentally important, the balance of power has shifted some between the political realm and other realms. Big changes can be developed through civil society.

These tools are available to those without formal membership status in a given polity. Those without the status of citizens have a range of vulnerabilities and exposures that others don’t have and they have to make hard choices about how to negotiate them. But their indivdiual vulnerabiltiy can be counterbalanced by impressive forms of collective and social power. Again, Cristina Beltran’s chapter provides a remarkable exploration of that vulnerability as well as of the forms of empowerment used to counterbalance it.

Danielle Allen is UPS Foundation Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. In July 2015 she will move to Harvard to take up the Directorship of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics and professorships in Harvard’s Department of Government and Graduate School of Education. She is a political theorist who has published broadly in democratic theory, political sociology, and the history of political thought. Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in both ancient Athens and modern America, Allen is the author of The World of Prometheus: the Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens (2000), Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown vs. the Board of Education (2004), Why Plato Wrote (2010), and Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality (Norton/Liveright Books, June 2014). She is the co-editor of the award- winning Education, Justice, and Democracy (2013, with Rob Reich) and From Voice to Influence: Understanding Citizenship in the Digital Age (2015, with Jennifer Light). She is a Chair of the Mellon Foundation Board, past Chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and American Philosophical Society.