Danielle Allen: Posing Challenging Sociopolitical Questions

“I am a person who loves books,” says Danielle Allen, UPS Foundation Professor in the Institute for Advanced Study’s School of Social Science. “I am happiest when I am reading and writing. And I am fascinated by politics.”

Trained both as a classicist and a political theorist, Allen was selected to succeed Michael Walzer, one of the world’s foremost political thinkers who retired last June after twenty-seven years and is now Professor Emeritus. Since joining the Institute last July, Allen has posed challenging sociopolitical questions—from examining the value of sound bites in democratic discourse; to leading the School’s thematic seminar, “The Rule of Law Under Pressure”; to probing a heady array of issues related to democratic theory, political sociology, the linguistic dimensions of politics, and the history of political thought.

Allen was Dean of the Humanities Division at the University of Chicago and a MacArthur Fellow with two Ph.D.s when Professor Joan Wallach Scott contacted her in 2006 about the possibility of her joining the Faculty. “I knew of the Institute,” says Allen, who had served on the University of Chicago faculty since 1997, “but I am not sure that it ever occurred to me that it was a place that hired.”

Widely known for her work on justice and citizenship in ancient Athens and its application to modern America, Allen recently has been looking at sociopolitical change and how clusters of problems— the influence, for example, of statistics on public discourse and linear extrapolations—relate to issues of political agency.

“I come from a pretty political family,” says Allen, who was raised in Claremont, California. Her father, a professor of political philosophy at Michigan State University, is a past chairman of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. “My father grew up in northern Florida and my mother grew up in Michigan. And they each came from families that were civically active. My grandfather on my father’s side organized the first NAACP chapter in his part of Florida, which was a dangerous thing to do at the time. And my mother’s grandfather did a lot of important work for the state of Michigan in various work-service roles related to youth education.”

At Princeton University, Allen expected to be a political science major. But things changed when she took a course called “Athenian Democracy” taught by Josiah Ober. “I realized that a lot of the political issues that I wanted to study, I could also learn about through the context of historical study,” Allen says.

After graduating summa cum laude from Princeton with a B.A. in Classics and a minor in political theory, Allen was awarded an M.Phil. and Ph.D. in Classics from Cambridge University, then went on to Harvard University, where she received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science. She joined the faculty at the University of Chicago in 1997 as Assistant Professor of Classics.

“My hope is to contribute to equipping my generation with the conceptual tools to do intelligent political thinking,” says Allen. “I would also like to try to help us evolve our understanding of democracy to meet the challenges of the world we live in now.”

In a public lecture at the Institute in February, Allen offered a probing look at the role sound bites play in democratic politics. Tracing the Western roots of sound bites to Homer, who was the first purveyor of them, and Aristotle, who offered the first theory of them as maxims, Allen examined why sound bites are a necessary and valuable part of political conversation, while also considering the ways in which they are dangerous.

Allen explained that she became fascinated with sound bites eight years ago when the outcome of the presidential election between George W. Bush and Albert Gore was before the U.S. Supreme Court. “At the same time that I was consumed by this political question,” Allen says, “I was also teaching Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War.

In particular, she was teaching books six and seven in which the primary protagonists, who debate whether to go to war, are Nicias, the elder statesman, and Alcibiades, the young Turk leading a new generation of politicians.

“As I was reading this, I suddenly realized that Thucydides was telling us something important about political language. Nicias’s syntax was incredibly complicated, very woolly. Alcibiades, in contrast, was direct, blunt.”

Allen started paying attention to the language being used by present-day political candidates. “It seemed to me we could probably attribute a significant portion of Bush’s success to his capacity to speak directly,” says Allen. “I began to use this general attention to syntax by politicians to judge what outcomes were likely.”

A similar scenario repeated itself in 2004—if anything, Allen noted, John Kerry’s syntax was more elaborate and more complex than Gore’s had been. Interestingly, this year’s primary elections, Allen observes, involved an important battle about the value of sound bites. “We are seeing in the exchange of sound bites between candidates a real argument about the role of language in politics,” says Allen, “and its capacity, or lack thereof, to be the basis of building communities, institutions, and common understandings of who and what we are, as well as the capacity of those principles to motivate action.”

So what are sound bites? Typically, they employ mnemonic techniques, such as alliteration and antithesis, to make them easy to remember. “At their core, they are about portability,” says Allen. “You hear them, and you remember them easily; you can carry them around. And so they become one of the elements that is essential to the replication of culture over time.”

Ultimately, the entire point of a sound bite is that the question of ownership should disappear. “You want a sound bite to become authoritative,” says Allen. “You want it to become a bit of commonly spoken language that circulates across time and space and solves problems that bedevil communication. One can consider a sound bite successful when no one can any longer claim authorship to it.”

According to Allen, sound bites do cultural work. Using Aristotle’s concept of judgment in the Rhetoric, Allen describes sound bites as contributing to the crafting of a common culture. Aristotle believed that we get our principles for judgment through maxims. His argument in the Rhetoric is that character is expressed through a person’s words. “Democratic citizens, perhaps consciously and perhaps not, ask themselves when they listen to a politician whether they want the bundle of principles entailed in or implied in whatever maxims or sound bites the politician has offered them,” says Allen.

The danger of sound bites is their ability to degrade political discourse through pleasure and discomfort. “We can spell out the types of pleasure in sound bites,” says Allen. “They are sonic or embodied pleasure; all that alliteration—it is not just that it helps us remember. We enjoy it in the same way that we enjoy the taste of chocolate or a gentle breeze across our skin. It is literally that physical.” There is also the pleasure of recognition, or as Aristotle called it, “easy learning.” “There is pleasure in being bound in community with someone one admires,” says Allen. But this sense of pleasure also “makes it possible to abuse sound bites by marshaling the pleasures they offer to suppress reasoning capacities.” Likewise, sound bites can be used to exploit confusion. “In the same way that sound bites can generate pleasure and cause pleasure,” says Allen, “equally when they fail, they cause discomfort.”

The healthcare debate is one context where confusion and discomfort are exploited, says Allen, who surveyed healthcare literature to try to figure out what certain terms—national, universal, compulsory, provide, premium, planned, program, and healthcare— actually mean. “I learned that these words are used in shifting and contradictory ways,” says Allen. “The healthcare conversation is confusing because these words mean whatever amalgam of concepts a speaker deems worthy of advocacy. I say this with regret because this is an important issue, and it is in fact precisely because we have become so bad at talking about it that it makes it hard to deal with.”

According to Allen, the best protection against propaganda, against the abuse of the pleasures and discomforts of sound bites, is an education in the verbal arts and in close reading and listening. “Education fosters capacities with words,” says Allen. “It is the capacity of words to help a community define itself through its practices, habits, and institutions that I take to be their most important political function.”