A Welcome Change: Radical Hospitality

Matthew Browne in Harvard Magazine:

Anna011Last week, a brimming crowd of grayed, bespectacled, and Tyvek-ed Cantabrigians, dotted throughout with important figures from the Harvard administration and faculty, packed into Sanders Theatre to hear actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith.

…All of the scenes spoke to Smith’s notion of Radical Hospitality, which was only loosely defined, to the point of being difficult to pin down. At different times, she presented it as the virtue of patience, laboring to empathize with others, and giving the exiled a home, just to name a few. Radical Hospitality, in its elasticity, ran the risk of not seeming radical at all, and just becoming a stand-in for the warm nicety du jour. But there seemed to be a stable core that held it together: people around the world ought to do a better job of treating each other as welcomed guests. Like the maxim “Love thy neighbor,” the principle is apparent, simple, and unsurprising—but to insist on its importance, and to hold oneself and others to its standards, is radical. A lot of what seemed novel about Smith’s concept was in language: the focus on the very word hospitality, and the attempt to trace its political import. We are familiar to the point of callousing with the idea that we should love strangers or that we should empathize with others, but we rarely hear that we should be more hospitable. The word feels new in our mouths. Focusing on hospitality reinvigorates the vitality of a word that’s retreated to the hotel and dining room. And these common associations strengthen Smith’s political usage, rendering otherwise abstract debates in terms of warm, ground-level personal relations. Offering amnesty to refugees, for example, can be thought of as a matter of hospitality; should we not feel the same careful responsibility to those around the world that we do to those in our homes? The idea suggests that there is an ethics to our etiquette and an etiquette to our ethics.

More here.