Civic Hospitality

I recently returned from three days at the annual conference of the National Communication Association. I attended a lot of great panels and enjoyed some enriching, thought-provoking conversations.

I was particularly struck by a comment from Debian Marty, who served as respondent for an engaging panel on “Using Dialogue and Deliberation Practice, Research, and Pedagogy to Shape Society and Social Issues.”

Marty argued that hospitality should be championed as a civic virtue.

This idea received some criticism from the room – most notably for the gendered connotation of the word “hospitality.”

To me, that word also implies a certain artificialness which I don’t think Marty was going for. Indeed, it was a little surreal staying at a Philadelphia hotel just days after the election. While nearly everyone I interacted with was generally gloomy and/or angry, the hotel staff – almost entirely people of color – were professionally upbeat and enthusiastic.

They were very hospitable, and their enthusiasm didn’t even feel forced – but their happy-presenting exteriors were a notable contrast to the general climate.

But, semantic details aside, Marty makes a strong argument. Hospitality – “the welcoming of the stranger as a guest,” as she described it – is a worth championing as a civic virtue.

In Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of EducationDanielle Allen advocates for a somewhat similar approach of “political friendship.” We don’t all have to agree in a democratic society. We don’t even have to all like each other. But we do need to respect each other, care for each other, and make personal sacrifices that support the common good.

It’s a fine line that Allen walks – we should pretend to like each other, but in a way that’s not entirely fake and disingenuous. We need to be hospitable.

Now, this sounds all well and good in a perfect world where we can all just put our differences aside and learn to work together across disagreement – but I worry that this line of reasoning does too little to acknowledge the real and persistent sacrifices that some groups of people have been forced to make for too long.

I want to be hospitable, and I want to champion hospitality, but there are some things – hate speech in particular – which I simply cannot abide or respond to warm smile. As a society, we cannot let such behavior stand.

Allen is well aware of this challenge – indeed, she starts her book with the inexcusably treatment of the Little Rock Nine. But the idea of “niceness” of not saying the things that need to be said out of a misplaced since of politeness, still plagues broader conceptions of “friendship” or “hospitality.”

But civic hospitality or political friendship is something much more subtle than this – something much more important. It is welcoming the stranger as a guest; it is listening intently and thoughtfully, and it standing up for what’s right: it necessarily entails calling out injustice and working against hate.

I don’t know the best phrase for this spirit; our language is so diversely burdened with subtle connotations, but I do know that whatever it is – civic hospitality, political friendship – we sure could use more of it. Fast.

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