Philosophy Communication: A Call to Arms?

Unfinished Napoleonic War memorial, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, July 2011

I’ve just gotten back from a quick trip to Canberra, where the Australasian Association of Philosophy conference is currently in full swing at ANU. Unfortunately I couldn’t get up there for the whole thing this year, but last night, after the very great pleasure of hearing Philip Pettit give the Alan Saunders Memorial Lecture, I was deeply honoured to receive the AAP’s Media Prize for 2013.

(I’m also delighted to say that Antonia Case from New Philosopher won the Media Professional’s Prize – huge congrats to Antonia, and thanks to Antonia and Zan for their support of philosophy and for producing such a great mag.)

I had the chance to say a few words, and the Media Prize has a $500 prize attached, so used the opportunity to explain what I’d like to do with that prize money. Basically, I’d like to use it as seed funding to kick off a discussion I’m hoping to get going in the discipline.

Here’s what I’m thinking:

This is a fairly uncertain time in which to be a philosopher. No-one’s making us drink hemlock or anything, and being a professional philosopher is still a pretty awesome way to earn a crust – at least for those who manage to secure one of the increasingly scarce jobs without ending up being trapped in casualised limbo or simply lost to the discipline altogether. But with politicians telling us we’re “ridiculous,” and high-profile astrophysicists calling us obsolete, pointless (e tu, Neil DeGrasse Tyson?), or both, it’s never been more important for philosophers to be out in the agora. We can’t expect people to care about philosophy if we’re not out there explaining to them why they should.

And there’s plenty of philosophers out there doing really great work in the media and in other ways, both from within the Academy and without. I’m thinking of folks like Nigel Warburton, Julian Baggini, Eric Schwitzgebel (drop whatever you’re doing and go read his Aeon piece), Angie Hobbs, Massimo Pigliucci, and many more. Yes, even him.

Here in Oz we’re no slouches either; among others, Raimond Gaita, Chris Cordner, Simon Longstaff and Peter Singer, for instance, have all made important interventions into public discourse. (And check today’s Drum piece by Matthew Beard).

So there’s already a lot of people who are really good at talking to and with the public about philosophy. And yet, for a discipline that loves nothing so much as going meta, we don’t seem to talk about talking about philosophy much.

And on this front at least, Hawking might just have a point: the sciences are way out in front. They disciplinised science communication a thing a long time ago. You can study it, you can publish on it, you can make a career out of it. Scientists have stepped back from their benchtops to critically thematise scientific literacy, and then studied how best to go about producing it.

So here’s the discussion I reckon it’d be interesting to have: what’s philosophy communication? If we think of what we do when we do ‘popular’ or ‘outreach’ work, what are we doing? How do we know when we’re doing it effectively? What are we trying to achieve? What does philosophical literacy look like? There’s been some pedagogical discussion of that last concept, but outside the literature on teaching philosophy the very idea of philosophical literacy is  unfamiliar enough that FauxPhilNews could use it as the basis of a joke.

Of course, science and philosophy are very different animals. We aren’t going to be holding press conferences announcing new findings (again, FauxPhilNews already did it). But we do have a lot of things to say about just about everything.

And what we say can be very well-received too. Sticking your head above the parapet is risky, and a certain number of people will knock philosophy and philosophers almost reflexively. Thus life on these here interwebs. But the responses I’ve had from people over the last couple of years of dabbling in media has also suggested to me that there’s a genuine demand for philosophy.

So what I propose is that we start talking about philosophy communication. How we do that, I’m not exactly sure. But you might. If you do, drop me a line.

Dangerous ideas, honour killings and moral seriousness

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Last night, after a public outcry, the Sydney Opera House’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas pulled a presentation from its upcoming program. The talk in August by Sydney writer and Hizb ut-Tahrir representative Uthman Badar, was to have been called Honour Killings are Morally Justified.

Most of us would react to a title like that with immediate revulsion. It promises a defence of something utterly indefensible. Indeed, on his Facebook page, Badar insisted he didn’t choose the title (but did consent to it) and that it misrepresented what he’d planned to speak about:

the suggestion that I would advocate for honour killings, as understand [sic] in the west, is ludicrous.

I’m rather unsettled by that “as understood in the West” qualifier, for reasons that will probably become apparent below, but Badar’s statement does suggest that the title was more a marketing hook than a real description of his argument.

And of course no-one is taking away his right to speak on the topic; having a right to free speech doesn’t mean you’re owed a turn at the megaphone.

But the Festival of Dangerous Ideas exists to consider, well, dangerous ideas. Can an idea ever be so dangerous it can’t even be discussed?

In her seminal paper Modern Moral Philosophy, G.E.M. Anscombe famously claimed that, yes, some ideas are simply off the table:

But if someone really thinks, in advance, that it is open to question whether such an action as procuring the judicial execution of the innocent should be quite excluded from consideration – I do not want to argue with him; he shows a corrupt mind.

Anscombe was, in one important sense, wrong. In a universe that throws morally tragic situations at us with gut-wrenching regularity, thinking the unthinkable – or at least thinking about thinking about it – sometimes becomes unavoidable.

There are good reasons to accept (as I do) that torture, for instance, is always and everywhere wrong, a grotesque violation that no society should ever tolerate. But that doesn’t mean all those who entertain the idea that sometimes torture might be the least-worst option are simply amoral.

Uthman Badar in 2012.
Paul Miller/AAP Image

Some are, no doubt. But others are responding to the pull of a genuine moral concern, namely, saving innocent lives. The concern may be legitimate even if the conclusion drawn is wrong.

The question here is whether the argument is made with what we might call moral seriousness. What’s right about Anscombe’s declaration that certain things are simply unthinkable is that it expresses just that moral seriousness: if you think it’s OK to kill an innocent person, you’re not attending properly to what people are and why they matter. You’re talking the language of ethics, but you’re not taking it seriously.

But could you declare, with anything approaching moral seriousness, that honour killings are sometimes morally permissible? I don’t see how.

How could you possibly construct a justification for killing someone on the basis of cultural or social norms of “honour” without completely losing sight of the wrongness of destroying a human life?

Undeniably, our cultural and religious traditions provide much of the raw content of our moral concepts. But part of moral seriousness is a commitment to the idea that morality is not simply a function of those traditions, but the standard by which we in turn judge culture or religion.

That’s asking quite a lot of us. To some degree we’re all inescapably bound up in the social, political, and spiritual traditions in which we’re raised, in ways we can barely even begin to notice, let alone transcend.

But our ethical judgments must be understood as pointing to a reality that goes beyond these things. That reality is what moral philosophy, in the broadest terms, strives to discern and articulate.

And in doing so, we acquire the tools to evaluate and critique social and cultural norms. If a culture sanctions domestic violence, or racism, or if a religion says someone should be punished for loving the “wrong” person, then that culture or religion is, just to that extent, mistaken about moral reality.

Take away the view that moral reality transcends culture, and you take away the very idea of moral progress: you end up having to say that slavery, for instance wasn’t wrong, just different.

Or you end up appealing to arguments that depend on religious revelation, and are thus useless as arguments: anyone who doesn’t share your faith in the revelation already won’t be persuaded. (And as you try to work out whether a thing is good because a deity says so, you’ll probably stumble into a Euphythro Problem for your trouble too.)

But maybe there’s a lost opportunity in all this. On Facebook, Badar said he didn’t choose the topic of his proposed talk:

I, in fact, suggested a more direct topic about Islam and secular liberalism (something like “The West needs saving by Islam” – how’s that for dangerous?), but the organisers insisted on this topic, which I think is still a worthy topic of discussion, for many reasons, as my presentation will, God-willing, show, hence I accepted.

Badar belongs to Hizb ut-Tahrir, an international group that seeks to establish the Caliphate. In a week where Islamophobe activists tried to stop construction of a mosque in Bendigo, here’s someone offering to try to defend the very idea of Islamic theocracy that’s such a key trope of anti-Muslim discourse.

Again, I can’t see how such an argument could possibly succeed without appealing to divinely revealed premises, which on the level of public ethics rules it out right from the start.

But ideas are most dangerous when they’re not exposed to argument.

Should the dead roll over to make room for real estate?

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

As a general rule, one place you really don’t want to find yourself is in-between a Melburnian and a piece of real estate.

But one group of long-term city residents has been getting in the way of developers and planners for a very long time now. This is even more impressive when you consider these residents have been dead for well over a century.

The Queen Victoria Market’s carpark sits atop the city’s original cemetery, founded in the 1830s. Despite exhumations in the 1920s there are still thousands of bodies buried there, some at depth, others barely a foot beneath the surface.

Surveyor Robert Hoddle’s understandable lack of foresight in siting the cemetery so close to the CBD grid that bears his name has meant that the use of this land has long been a sensitive and difficult matter. Works over the years have had to negotiate the competing needs of the market (in more sense than one) and the non-economic needs of human remembrance, trying to combine mercantile and sacred space in a delicate balancing act.

jurek d.

Recently, City of Melbourne has proposed turning most of the existing carpark into a park as a sign of respect for those buried there – a far cry from the attitude of the 1930s, when a steam shovel was used to tear through the old cemetery to build the Franklin Street stores.

And yet questions have still been raised about whether the new plans show sufficient forbearance. The proposed extension of Franklin Street and commercial development at the southern end of the market precinct would potentially sit atop burial sites.

This clash between the call of the future and the depth of the past poses important questions for us here in the present: should the dead impede the activities of the living in this way? What, if anything, do we owe the dead?

It’s too easy to say “nothing”, that the dead simply don’t exist any more and any responsibilities we have regarding the dead are actually duties to the living. Even the unsentimental Aristotle thought it “heartless” to claim the dead couldn’t be harmed by events after their death, such as the fortunes of their descendants.

patrick wilken

There is a real question as to how we can harm or benefit a person who no longer exists, and philosophers have tried to answer this question in a number of ways. An influential answer, first offered by Thomas Nagel, is that just as we can harm someone at a great spatial distance, say by betraying them, we can also harm them at a temporal distance as well.

So when, for instance, Colin Campbell Ross was pardoned for Melbourne’s Gun Alley Murder, 86 years after he was wrongfully convicted and hanged, this was justice for Ross, not for the living.

I’ve argued previously that the dead persist phenomenally in our recollection – not as conscious selves, but nonetheless as the objects of loving attention they were for us while they lived – and that this gives us a responsibility to maintain that memory.

Martijn Witlox

Sartre said the dead are “prey” to the living, but they are also our dependants: without our maintenance they slip away into oblivion, into what Goethe called the “second death” of being forgotten.

Yet those buried beneath the Queen Vic are beyond memory. There are no direct personal bonds between the living and the dead in this case, no personal promises left to honour or break. Whatever connections of blood or allegiance we might have to these people are lost in their anonymity. Each is, for us, simply a distinct token of humanity, and whatever we owe them, we owe them simply as human beings.

Kierkegaard declared that remembering the dead was the purest act of love, because the dead can neither repay us for our trouble nor force us to remember them. This work of love is harder when the dead are beyond human memory, stripped of their identity and decomposed into a body that can only be reconstructed, not recognised, and described only through general categories – age, height, sex.

But the sense remains that even these remains are those of distinctive persons, objects of someone’s loving regard even if they remain unknowable to us.

Known Unto God, Acroma Knightsbridge Cemetery near Tobruk, Libya.

The inscription “Known Unto God” on the gravestones of unknown soldiers picks out something like this: to us these are perhaps just bones, but someone – God, at least, for the epitaph-writers of the Great War – knew this person in their distinctive fullness. They lived. And that they lived deserves to be respected.

The reason we’re horrified by the thought of a steam shovel tearing up the old cemetery is not that we’re superstitious or have taken metaphors about the “resting place” of the dead too literally. It’s that the dead continue to demand a respect that extends to how we treat their remains, however far removed these might be from the full, living person they once were.

The dead, in a way, have a right to be awkward. They should be an obstruction, something the living need to work around, because in doing so we refuse to quarantine them from the realm of what is.

The rights of those buried beneath the market carpark are of course no more absolute than those of any other Melburnians. It would be silly to deny that the living have a far greater claim on us, and the demands of the dead are easily outweighed by other considerations. But that doesn’t mean the dead have no claim on us at all.

The continued sensitive management of this site isn’t simply a piece of good urban planning or canny politics. It’s a work of love.

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The Biennale, Transfield, and the value of boycott

Unfinished Napoleonic War memorial, Calton Hill, Edinburgh, July 2011

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

In July 1846, the American writer Henry David Thoreau went to prison for refusing to pay his poll tax. He couldn’t abide the thought that his money would be used, however indirectly, to perpetuate the Mexican-American war and the institution of slavery. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” Thoreau reasoned, and so that’s where he was.

Like many things in Thoreau’s life, his stint in jail was somewhat less impressive than he made it sound. He’d simply run into the tax collector by chance, who demanded six years’ worth of unpaid taxes. Thoreau refused, spent one night in a freshly-whitewashed cell, drank a pint of hot chocolate for breakfast, and was released against his will later that day when someone (probably his aunt) paid the tax for him.

Nothing changed. Both the war and slavery went on, unperturbed. The most significant outcome was Thoreau’s deeply influential essay Civil Disobedience, an ongoing source of inspiration to anti-statist activists from the anarchist left to the libertarian right.

Four decades later, the people of Lough Mask in Ireland began a campaign of ostracisation against Lord Erne’s local land agent – a certain Captain Charles Boycott. The British ultimately used troops to guard the Orangemen brought down to harvest Erne’s crops (at 20 times the cost of what the crops were worth). But in the process the English language acquired a useful new verb.

But is the practice of boycotting as useful as the word? Are withdrawals of support such as Thoreau’s morally valuable acts of defiance or mere self-indulgent theatre?

The news that the Sydney Biennale has severed all links with Transfield Holdings, including accepting the resignation of its chairman Luca Belgiorno-Nettis (who remains Transfield’s director), throws all these issues into relief.

Like Transfield itself, the Biennale was founded by Luca Belgiorno-Nettis’ father Franco (who had earlier established the Transfield Art Prize). No-one disputes, therefore, that Transfield has been a deeply valuable benefactor of the arts. As recently as late February, the Biennale board was insisting it could not survive without Transfield.

But Transfield’s subsidiary, Transfield Services, operates the Australian government’s immigration detention facility in Nauru, and has just signed a A$1.22 billion contract to run the Manus Island facility in PNG as well. Protests against Transfield’s involvement with the Biennale had been gathering steam for weeks. Nine artists had withdrawn from the event altogether.

In the statement announcing his resignation, Belgiorno-Nettis complained:

There would appear to be little room for sensible dialogue, let alone deliberation. Yesterday I learnt that some international government agencies are beginning to question the decision of the Biennale’s board to stand by Transfield.

Biennale staff have been verbally abused with taunts of “blood on your hands”. I have been personally vilified with insults, which I regard as naïve and offensive. This situation is entirely unfair – especially when directed towards our dedicated Biennale team who give so much of themselves.

As the reference to Biennale staff reminds us, ethical decisions are never made in a vacuum. We moral philosophers like our thought-experiments artificially clean and simple: strip out all the messy, extraneous stuff and display the moral problem in its clarity and purity. Real-life moral dilemmas aren’t like that: the truth, as Wilde quipped, is rarely pure and never simple. It would be silly to ignore the fact there are livelihoods and careers involved here, and real costs to each if the event folds.

Villains are rarely as pure as we’d like them to be either. Writing on The Conversation, Joanna Mendelssohn notes that Luca Belgiorno-Nettis is:

by any measure a major patron of the arts on a personal level and one of the great subtle thinkers in modern Australia.

And yet, he profits from what can only be called systematic cruelty.

As an act of protest, the decision to boycott an arts festival may seem decidedly sub-Thoreavian. There are certainly real costs involved to the protesters, but no-one’s going to prison. Moreover, it’s no doubt impossible for even the most well-meaning boycotter to achieve complete disentanglement here either.

Other sources of funding are also likely to be ethically tainted too – is taking part in the Sydney Festival, which has a casino as its principal sponsor, an endorsement of the gambling industry, for instance?

Presumably the local artists who threatened to boycott the Biennale still pay their taxes too. We’re still paying for Manus whoever gets the contract. (Even Thoreau continued to pay the Highway Tax, because “I am as desirous of being a good neighbor as I am of being a bad subject.”)

And of course, none of this will move the needle one bit on asylum seeker detention policy, any more than Thoreau’s theatrics stopped the war against Mexico.

His belief that even a minority “is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight” sounds wildly optimistic, then as now. Australia seems determined to punish asylum seekers for the unforgivable crime of disturbing our three-big-tellies-and-two-cars-in-the-driveway complacency.

As Waleed Aly put it in a grimly eloquent piece recently, “The political truth is that there is almost nothing any government could do that the electorate would deem too brutal” when it comes to detainees. A few artists pulling out of a festival is unlikely to get much traction in the suburbs of Western Sydney (which, as we learned during the last election campaign, is apparently the entirety of Australia).

And yet.

And yet, a group of individuals stood up, at some cost to themselves, to withdraw their implicit support of a company that makes money from our brutalisation of the most vulnerable. And they won.

The board’s statement suggest it’s reacting to pressure rather than acting from genuine ethical concern, and Belgiorno-Nettis’ comments aren’t exactly a study in contrition. When the sun came up Saturday he was still director of Transfield Holdings, and Transfield Services was still running detention camps for profit.

But even so, the Biennale board has chosen a course of action that, on its own admission, puts its survival in doubt. I’ve said here before that we need more turkeys prepared to vote for Christmas. Perhaps we’ve found some. Perhaps.

Whatever the complexities, and however limited the impact, there was, at least, a moment, here in 2014, where the idea that misery outweighs money won some sort of victory.

It won’t change much. It won’t change anything at all for those suffering on Manus and Nauru right now. Some will call it merely symbolic, an empty gesture. But gestures matter. Symbols matter.

Thoreau died of TB at the age of 44, too soon to see the Emancipation Proclamation – by just eight months. History can be quicker than you think.


Further reading:

Luca Belgiorno-Nettis should just buy a yacht
We should value the Biennale protest, not threaten arts funding
Is there any clean money left to fund the arts?
Artists’ victory over Transfield misses the bigger picture
Should artists boycott the Sydney Biennale over Transfield links?

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Margaret, David, Wolf Creek 2 and, oh … torture porn

The Nobbies, Phillip Island, November 2012

By Patrick Stokes, Deakin University

Well, I’m outraged, I tells ya. Outraged!

This is such a shameful snub. Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton, beloved hosts of ABC’s At the Movies, have apparently refused to review a major new Aussie movie. OK, maybe this particular movie is not everyone’s cup of tea. But is it really too much to expect they – and the public broadcaster they work for – should get behind Australian cinema and cover high-profile, locally-made movies?

After all, Horny Marsupial Wrangler Babes in Trouble 2 is the sequel to the highest-grossing Australian porn film in years. This is a pretty big deal.

Why the silence about such a major Aussie success story, Margaret and David? I can only conclude it’s sheer snobbery on your part. Curse these stuck-up arthouse types. Just where do they get off? (So to speak.)

Admittedly, I haven’t actually seen Horny Marsupial Wrangler Babes in Trouble 2, mostly because I just made it up. (Please, nobody invoke Rule 34: “If it exists, there is porn of it on the internet”). But imagine if there really was such a film, and David and Margaret refused to review it. Would you think that’s unreasonable?

Margaret and David.

I’d imagine most people would think that’s fair enough. Why on earth would a serious movie show review a porno? To the extent that anyone has ever come up with a serious definition of porn, one key feature is that porn exists primarily to produce sexual arousal; artistic merit, even if it’s a consideration, must be subordinate to that aim. Debbie Does Dallas (1978) may have a certain kitsch charm (ah, so I’m told), but Citizen Kane it ain’t.

And yet, apparently At the Movies’ refusal to review Wolf Creek 2 (Stratton separately gave it a negative review for The Australian) is seen as a serious lapse in some quarters. National film editor at Fairfax Media Karl Quinn accuses them of having “abnegated their responsibility as Australia’s most-watched movie critics,” insisting that whatever they think of it, Wolf Creek 2 “is an artefact and it demands inspection” – apparently just because it’s popular.

Wolf Creek 2’s writer and director, Greg McLean, was also understandably peeved:

what on earth are they thinking? Simply not reviewing an independent Aussie movie that beat its US studio competitor Lone Survivor … is worth paying some attention.

Take a look at the comments attached to that article, and it becomes clear a certain number of people out there view this as a dereliction of the ABC’s duty to give taxpayers what they want to see, and to support the Australian film industry. Another example of the public broadcaster failing to show “basic affection for the home team” it would seem.

To be clear, I’m not arguing against the existence or availability of horror films, or porn films for that matter. If people want to watch these things, fine – though as consumers of these products we also need to be aware that there are arguments against both these things that deserve to be considered seriously rather than simply dismissed out of hand. “But I like it!” or “Ewww, gross” aren’t much chop as arguments either way.

What’s more interesting here is the unsettling double-standard. Despite all the hand-wringing about the “mainstreaming” of porn in the internet era, cultural artefacts such as Saw (2004), Hostel (2005), The Human Centipede (2009) and Wolf Creek (2005), with their gratuitous depictions of gore and violence, are somehow considered more socially acceptable than pornography. Why is “torture porn” somehow more valid than, well, porn-porn? Why does at least a section of the public expect At the Movies to review one but not the other?

No doubt there are some important differences. A second defining feature of porn that’s been noted, for example, is that porn invites you not merely to enjoy what’s being done on screen, but to approve of it too, at least implicitly. There’s a certain “pro-attitude” involved in arousal.

You could argue there’s no direct analogue to that in torture porn: presumably even the most ardent fan of Wolf Creek doesn’t actually think Mick Taylor’s tortures, rapes, mutilations and murders are a good way to behave.

Wolf Creek 2.
Courtesy of Roadshow Films

Even so, you could say that both torture-porn and porn-porn invite the viewer to somehow revel in what’s going on, even if they don’t approve of it. (We’re not invited to think “Oh that poor innocent traveller, I do hope the killer doesn’t follow through with that hacksaw”).

And they do this in a specific way: they both reduce the living body to a vulnerable object, pitifully and hopelessly subject to violation. They are, you might say, both “obscene” in part of the sense Jean-Paul Sartre gives the term: the body revealed in “the inertia of its flesh”, as pure matter to be acted upon.

Indeed in that sense, porn comes out looking considerably better than Hostel-style gore-fests. An erection or a jiggling breast, attached to an apparently eager participant, is surely much less obscene in this technical sense than a severed head or hacked-off fingers. Both genres objectify, but as Martha Nussbaum argued, not all objectification is equally bad.

DH Lawrence’s Constance Chatterley and Mellors objectify each other by focussing on each other’s genitals, for instance, but they do so in a way that doesn’t deny or diminish the fundamental humanity of the person attached. They don’t reduce each other to their bodies.

I’m not sure we can say that about all torture-porn flicks. Setting aside the details – and admittedly the degradation is often in the details – what’s the greater affront to basic human dignity: a depiction of consenting adults having sex, or a depiction of non-consenting mutilation and murder?

Of course, such dignity-based arguments go out the window if you reject the idea there’s any such dignity there to begin with. Alan Soble, a leading American philosopher of sex, makes this case in quite arresting terms:

To complain that pornography presents women as “fuck objects” is to presuppose that women, as humans or persons, are something substantially more than fuck objects. Whence this piece of illusory optimism? […] Pornography gives to no one, male or female, the respect that no-one, male or female, deserves anyway. It demolishes human pretensions. It objectifies that which does not deserve not to be objectified. It thereby repudiates norms that Christian, Western culture holds dear, that people are not to be used or treated as objects or objectified or dehumanized or degraded.

Extending this thought to the torture porn genre: can we seriously say that human beings are no more than mere “slash objects”? If not, shouldn’t we find something troubling in depicting them as such?

Now, there’s an important liberal argument that’s often raised in discussions of porn that also seems to apply to torture-porn: if everyone involved – performers, producers, purchasers – is a willing participant, and so no-one gets hurt, then we simply have no right to interfere. Fair enough. But if we accept that argument, we also have to accept that Stratton and Pomeranz also have a right to review whatever they like.

If, on the other hand, we expect them to support local content producers, then it seems we have to accept the possibility of Margaret and David squabbling over the merits of Adelaide Sex Adventures 4: Rundle Mall Rumps.

Which, I think we can all agree, would make for awesome television.

The Conversation

Patrick Stokes does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

The spying game: what a 15th-century Irish warlord can teach today’s politicians

[Originally published at The Conversation; please feel free to join in the discussion]

Irish philosopher Richard Kearney visited Melbourne last year and, being the fine raconteur he is, told a great tale from his nation’s past. In 1492, Black James, nephew of the Earl of Ormond, and a group of heavily armed retainers sought sanctuary in the chapter house of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin.

Outside stood Gerard Mór FitzGerald, the powerful Earl of Kildare, and his men. A bloody feud between two dynastic families, the Butlers and the FitzGeralds, had culminated in this desperate moment.

From the other side of the door, FitzGerald pleaded with Black James to come out and negotiate a truce. Fearing that he and his men would be slaughtered the moment they stepped outside, James refused.

Then FitzGerald did something quite remarkable. He had his men cut a hole in the door – and thrust his arm through it. James could easily have hacked off FitzGerald’s arm. Instead, he shook it. The feud was over.

That’s the story that’s come down to us; maybe the reality was far less inspiring. FitzGerald, after all, was a man so charismatic he somehow used his own treason trial to convince Henry VII to send him back to Ireland as Lord Deputy:

All Ireland cannot govern this Earl; then let this Earl govern all Ireland.

And the claim that this event gave us the expression “to chance one’s arm”, though charming, seems improbable.

But FitzGerald’s gesture tells us something important about trust, vulnerability and the ways in which political self-interest can ensnare us in webs that can only be cut through by an ethical regard for the other.

The Westphalian world order of sovereign nations is often understood as a sort of anarchy. While nation-states apply the rule of law internally, the geopolitical realm is a lawless frontier of powerful national actors competing in the name of self-interest.

Diplomatic language may smooth this over with talk of “friends” and “special relationships” but scratch the surface and it’s basically just Game of Thrones with APEC shirts. And nowhere is that more evident than in how nations spy on each other.

Two spying scandals are currently swirling around Australian politics. Both involve Australian agencies listening to the conversations of our near neighbours in an attempt to further our “national interest”. Both involve electronic eavesdropping of a sort that would cause outrage if done to Australian politicians and their spouses. And in the discussion of both cases, the moral issues this activity raises have been mostly swept to one side.

Whenever a foreign intelligence story breaks in the media, the commentary tends to be built around catchy little chunks of realpolitik: everybody spies on everyone, and everyone knows it; nations have neither permanent friends nor permanent enemies, only permanent interests; and so on. Commentators have smugly invoked the “prissy moralising” of US president Herbet Hoover’s Secretary of State Henry L. Stimson, who in 1929 closed the State Department’s cryptographic “Black Chamber” because:

Gentlemen don’t read each other’s mail.

Stimson, we’re told, just wasn’t in touch with the “reality” of global affairs. After all, on one popular estimate, the cracking of the German Enigma code shortened World War Two by up to two years and saved untold lives – and that success wouldn’t have been possible if not for secret work done by the Polish military well before the outbreak of war.

The subtext of all this seems to be “of course we spy on our neighbours – we have to, as it is in our national interest to do so”. Everything, it seems, must be subordinated to the national interest. The Prime Minister tells parliament his first duty is to advance the national interest, without telling us why acting in our own interests is always right or even permissible. Even the ABC has been accused of betraying “the national interest” by breaking the Indonesian spying story with The Guardian.

The responses in Indonesia and Timor Leste are likewise being interpreted through the prism of those countries’ domestic political and economic issues. There’s plenty of self-interest to go around.

But that shouldn’t alter our evaluation of whether it was right to eavesdrop on the wife of the Indonesian president or the East Timorese cabinet. Such an evaluation must get past the bizarre notion that ethical regard stops the moment we’re dealing with foreign nationals.

Morality doesn’t stop at the border. The fact that the Australian Signals Directorate operates under extra restrictions when dealing with “Australian persons”, for instance, doesn’t change what it is to spy on someone.

None of this amounts to an argument that covert foreign intelligence collection is never necessary or permissible. But we can accept that such activity might be crucial for saving lives and preventing crime without accepting that national interest is always a good enough reason to spy on someone. A standing desire to advance the nation’s geopolitical or economic interests does not, on the face of it, rise to the necessary level of moral urgency.

So, what does the Irish tale we started with have to teach us here? And how might it help the Abbott and Yudhoyono governments in finding a way forward?

There are two ways (at least) of looking at what FitzGerald did that day in 1492. One is that he took a calculated risk, based on his assessments of the probabilities of how Black James would react. He weighed up the risks and benefits and decided it was in his self-interest to take the gamble.

The other is that he took a leap of trust: that by placing himself in a position of vulnerability, he could open the situation up and allow new possibilities to emerge. Self-interest had led to hopeless deadlock, but surrendering to trust, giving up a degree of control, might just spring it open again.

Perhaps the second interpretation is just a piece of naïve romanticising, or simply overlaying a particular modern ethical view (one that bears a heavy imprint of 20th-century thinkers like Levinas and Buber) into a very alien, archaic context.

But perhaps it also suggests a way forward. Breaking through the calculus of competing national interests might involve setting self-interest aside, at least in a limited way. It might involve accepting vulnerability – and thereby taking a leap of trust, however small.

That may mean giving up the edge in international negotiations, or accepting that certain kinds of information just won’t be available under certain circumstances, for moral rather than practical or technical reasons. That may be frustrating and, yes, potentially dangerous.

A line between legitimate security interests and simply trying to feather our nest will constantly have to be walked. But some such distinction – and the willingness to live with the costs of doing the right thing – is essential.

The quarantining of geopolitics from ethics is looking more and more unsustainable. What might replace it, however, is unclear. If we want a truly ethical international order, not simply an anarchic competition of national interests in which might rather than right carries the day, the first step might be putting trust ahead of self-interest.

We might have to be the ones to chance our arm.

New Project: Online Interactions with the Dead

I’m pleased to announce that I’ve received support from the Deakin University Central Research Grants Scheme to pursue a new project on our online encounters with the dead throughout 2014.

As I’ve written about in both scholarly and popular forums, dead people are becoming an increasingly inescapable part of our experience of social media. This project will consider increasingly common practices of online memorialisation and commemoration, as well as other ways in which the phenomenal and practical presence of the dead is mediated through emerging online technologies. These practices will be considered in the light of a range of questions in contemporary philosophy to do with the extent of personal identity and the existential and moral status of the dead.

The grant includes some support to run an interdisciplinary workshop – more details to follow.

Free range ‘debate’ puts the egg before the chicken

[Originally published at The Conversation; feel free to join in the discussion there]

Today’s announcement that Woolworths will phase out the selling of cage eggs seems like pretty good news.

But let’s not get carried away.

The “free range” label on a carton of eggs can mean densities of anywhere up to 20,000 birds per hectare (as opposed to the recommended 1,500), and it’ll be five years before the phase-out is complete. Cage eggs have reportedly declined from 70% to 50% of egg sales since 2009, so the financial grenade Woolworths is selflessly throwing itself onto doesn’t look like it was all that explosive anyway.

Even so, on the face of it it’s a pleasing example of a company acting ethically. Not everyone is likely to be impressed though.

Just a few days earlier, Tom Joyner, writing for Fairfax, suggested that those who buy cage eggs have been unfairly stigmatised:

Seriously, though, apart from the obvious reasons of animal cruelty (unaided by confusing industry regulation), why is there so much stigma around buying cage eggs? They are a lot cheaper and I honestly find they taste little different to their free-range counterparts.

Sure, they’re cruel and all, but they’re so cheap! And just as tasty!

As I’ve pointed out here before, ethics simply doesn’t work like that: you can’t outweigh moral disvalue with any amount of nonmoral value. You don’t get to do something horrible just because it’s convenient, or fun.

Of course, consequentialists, such as utilitarians, might reply that the pleasure of saving money is itself a morally relevant factor. For a utilitarian (and I’m oversimplifying horribly here), we’re morally required to take the course of action that would produce the highest possible net pleasure.

But I’d be amazed if there’s a utilitarian argument that shows the pleasure of saving about 50 cents per 100g outweighs the suffering of cage hens.

The cost of eggs for lower-income earners might be a legitimate issue, but that doesn’t mean we face a stark either/or between protein-starved kids and hens who spend their whole lives wedged into a cage with the floorspace of an A4 sheet of paper.

Joyner goes on to ask:

Why should we so selectively expend moral capital championing a triviality of the poultry industry, when about 1100 deaths in a factory collapse in Dhaka (a disaster like others just waiting to happen) changes little in public discourse on our complicity in the exploitative measures employed by clothing manufacturers in developing countries – do we really care more about chickens than we do Bangladeshis? […] Australians would sooner bicker over the ethical implications of their omelet than they would demand greater transparency from major retailers.

The suffering of battery hens is certainly no “triviality”, but there’s a reasonable concern here. We do often direct our moral attention selectively and inconsistently. Perspective is important, and for beings like us with finite time and resources there may be a case for a sort of “outrage triage.”

But surely as consumers we can care about two things at once here? Conditions on poultry farms and in foreign clothing factories seems like a case where we can walk and chew gum at the same time (actually “fart and chew gum” in LBJ’s original phrase, but the bowlderised version seems to be the one that’s stuck).

It’s true, no doubt, that in our consumer behavior we consistently fail to do that – that our actions suggest we care more about where our eggs come from than where our clothes do – but doesn’t mean we get a free pass on caring about the hens too.

Joyner is hardly the only pundit to indulge in sloppy moral reasoning about nonhuman animals. At the height of the live export controversy last year, another Fairfax columnist, Nicole Flint, complained that in the ABC’s reporting, “Animals are segregated from their true purpose […] animals are food.”

There’s no further argument offered in support of that claim, so it seems Flint is doing one of two things. Either she takes it that it’s simply self-evident that animals exist for the purpose of us eating them, or she’s trying to answer a normative question (“Should we eat animals?”) with a descriptive fact (“We do eat animals!”). Replace “eating animals” with, say, “enslaving orphans” and you’ll see pretty quickly why that argument doesn’t work.

You might think this sort of philosophical analysis is overkill when we’re talking about ephemeral newspaper opinion pieces, piled atop the internet’s remorselessly growing mountain of content (Hey, I can see my house from up here!).

But as Plato has Socrates say in the Republic, “These are no small matters we are discussing, but how we are to live.” Moral reasoning matters, if anything does – and we’ve been doing it for long enough that we’ve gotten pretty good at it.

The problem with articles like Joyner’s and Flint’s isn’t that the positions they defend are wrong, necessarily. It’s that they treat moral reasoning as if we can simply make it up as we go along. They smuggle in controversial assumptions without argument, or reduce questions of ethical value to matters of personal taste. It might make for good clickbait, but it’s poor moral philosophy.

That doesn’t mean every columnist has to memorise Kant’s Groundwork to the Metaphysics of Morals before we let them near a keyboard. But as writers, as citizens, and simply as human beings concerned to live well, we need at least some basic familiarity with the concepts and methods of this vital form of philosophy. These are no small matters.

Waste not, want not – the politics of why philosophy matters

The Nobbies, Philip Island, September 2012

[Originally posted at The Conversation; feel free to join in the discussion there]

Update: Read more on this topic from Robert Sinnerbrink, Thom Brooks, Daniel Stacey and Andy Weatherall
And so now we officially know: philosophy is a waste.

How can we be sure? Because Coalition spokesman for scrutiny of government waste Jamie Briggs has promised an Abbott government would get rid of “those ridiculous research grants that leave taxpayers scratching their heads wondering just what the government was thinking”.

Seriously, don’t bother with philosophy. Don’t bother trying to understand the rules of logic, or what constitutes a good argument, or what makes an action right or wrong. Don’t bother trying to follow humanity’s “great conversation” let alone trying to contribute to it. Waste of time and money.

Briggs cited four projects: one in anthropology, one in public art, and not one, but two in philosophy.

Why pick on philosophy? That’s not hard: we’re an easy target. “Philosopher” has become a byword for “useless and unemployable” (except we’re not), for “abstract and impractical”.

Of course, most disciplines suffer from misconceptions about what they do. Tell someone you’re a scientist and they’ll picture you in a white coat and goggles surrounded by bubbling Erlenmeyer Flasks; tell them you’re an anthropologist and they’ll probably imagine you hacking through jungle with a machete on your way to study some remote tribe.

Tell them you’re a philosopher? They’ll laugh. Or, worse, start quoting Deepak Chopra at you.

Philosophy has a particular vulnerability here because it’s not directly linked to any obvious economic output, it’s hard, and if you aren’t curious about ideas you’ll struggle to see the point of it. If you don’t view knowledge as having intrinsic rather than merely economic value, philosophy will be your go-to example of academic wankery.

And if you have a visceral dislike or suspicion of intellectuals – or want to curry favour with people who do – what could be more satisfying than calling out people who use words like “supererogatory” and “noetic” as useless blowhards?

But it’s not just philosophers who should be worried here. Ordinary taxpayers should be too.

All four of the projects Briggs cited have already run the gamut of the Australian Research Council’s (ARC) expert assessors and secured funding in a very difficult, competitive environment. In other words, people who know what they’re talking about looked at them and decided that they were world-class research.

But apparently Jamie Briggs – who seems to have no qualifications relevant to any of the research topics he attacked – knows better than the ARC’s College of Experts. And note that he wasn’t talking about cutting the overall research budget, just redistributing it so that humanities projects he and his colleagues can’t see the point of miss out. In other words, he’s saying that certain kinds of knowledge just aren’t worth producing, or at least not worth paying for.

We’ve been here before, back when Brendan Nelson was education minister and declared he had to look truck drivers and gasfitters in the eye and tell them he was allocating the ARC’s money properly.

The assumption here is that somehow ministers and truck drivers know better than the ARC’s own College of Experts what counts as a meritorious project. If it leaves you scratching your head then clearly it must be vacuous nonsense, right?

I’m hardly an impartial observer here. I had nothing to do with either of the projects Briggs attacked, but both of them focus on topics I also work on: selfhood and identity, and post-Kantian European philosophy of religion. In fact I’m currently writing a book that combines both these topics, so apparently I’m wasting both my time and your money to an absolutely stunning degree.

Except, no, I’m not. And neither were Paul Redding and Diego Bubbio, whose projects Briggs sneers at. Their work touches on questions that human beings cannot avoid asking: the nature of what we are, what exists, and of our place in the universe. They feed into active and productive literatures, and open up new avenues for exploration.

Projects like this matter. They matter because they advance fundamental avenues of inquiry that have been part of the human inheritance since, at least, the Axial Period. They enhance the scope, size and profile of Australian research and thereby help to attract talent. And having spent several years overseas on a series of postdoc grants, I know how crucial they can be as a mechanism for training researchers and for attracting and retaining people who can enhance Australia’s research profile and culture.

Perhaps most of all, funding a certain amount of basic, even speculative research shows that we are a society serious about knowledge itself, not simply about meeting our material needs. That is what the humanities do: they remind us we are human.

So yes, politicians need to stop attacking fundamental parts of human inquiry they don’t understand and don’t care about. But part of the responsibility here also falls to philosophers ourselves. We need to be much better at explaining what we do and why it matters. Scientists are at least talking about scientific literacy; “philosophical literacy” is hardly even discussed, except as a joke.

Over the last year I’ve done a bit of media work, here and elsewhere, and one thing it’s brought home to me is how philosophically naïve much of our public discourse has become. For instance, I’ve lost count of the number of times people have assured me that morality is obviously all just a matter of personal opinion – as if the last two and a half thousand years of moral philosophy never happened. We expect people to have views on right and wrong without equipping them with even the most basic tools to ask the relevant questions or assess the answers they’re offered.

As philosophers, we need to keep explaining why that’s a problem, why philosophy matters. We need to keep making the case, loudly and often, that our discipline is not simply a fun pastime for people who like to argue or quote Levinas in smoke-filled coffee houses. Rather, philosophy is the condition for all our knowing, all our enquiry. It is the only way we can answer those basic human questions we cannot help but ask: what is there, what do we know, how are we to live?

In making that case, we could do a lot worse than cite this quote from Bertrand Russell (which the Australasian Association of Philosophy recently posted on their Facebook page):

The man who has no tincture of philosophy goes through life imprisoned in the prejudices derived from common sense, from the habitual beliefs of his age or his nation, and from convictions which have grown up in his mind without the co-operation or consent of his deliberate reason. To such a man the world tends to become definite, finite, obvious; common objects rouse no questions, and unfamiliar possibilities are contemptuously rejected.

A nation that mocks philosophy is a nation content to remain “imprisoned in its prejudices”. Where is the minister who will look us in the eye and tell us that?

Australia: land of eccentric election candidates

Kookaburra, Adelaide, June 2013

[Originally posted at The Conversation UK; feel free to join in the discussion there]

UPDATE: The below piece ran in the Conversation’s UK edition on election eve 2013. The provisional election result has Clive Palmer elected to the seat of Fairfax and two of his senate candidates also elected. Congratulations, Clive. It also appears the hitherto unknown Australian Sports Party and the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party have both secured senate seats despite each attracting absolutely miniscule proportions of the vote. This sort of outcome is precisely what the ABC’s wonderful resident psephologist Antony Green has been warning us about for some time. Here’s his excellent analysis of what happened and how the system might be fixed.


Here’s a sentence you probably won’t hear again for a while: when I lived in the UK, I couldn’t get over how constructive and intelligent British politics was.

Having come from Australia, where Question Time in parliament has long since descended into hollow sloganeering and pointless vitriol – like kabuki theatre staged at a dog fight – Westminster politics seemed decidedly civil, even, well … reasonable.

The key to understanding Australian politics is that voting is both compulsory and preferential (or “Alternative Vote” as the UK knows it). This means that in order to win elections, candidates have to appeal to people who don’t care about politics and also to people who plan to vote for someone else anyway. The result is two major parties who, despite some genuine ideological divisions, basically disagree within a fairly narrow band. Unthreatening centrism and a “don’t scare the horses” mentality is the order of the day.

But there is another story at play here too. Australia’s notoriously complicated voting system for the Senate, combined with preference deals done between parties, means the balance of power in the upper house has often been held by independents and minor parties such as the Australian Greens and, until a few years ago, the Australian Democrats.

There’s also a slew of perennial campaigners such as the Shooters and Fishers Party (not to be confused with the Fishing and Lifestyle Party) and the Australian Sex Party. Tragically the latter refuses to use the slogan “Ain’t No Party Like An Australian Sex Party!”, but made up for it this year with the campaign line “As much as we like sex, we don’t like getting f***ed.” I’m not even making that up.

Minor parties may add colour and movement, but they are more than just electoral noise: they can exert a serious influence on preferences flows and ultimately on the composition of the Senate.

So with that in mind, here’s a quick primer on a couple of the more, ahem, “interesting” characters making their presence felt in this election.

Julian Assange

I’m guessing you may have already heard of would-be Senator Julian Assange, born and raised in the suburbs of Melbourne, lately of Knightsbridge.

Wikileaks decided to set up a political party to contest the Australian election in 2012, with Assange in the party’s number one slot for the Victorian Senate contest, the fact that he’s hiding in an embassy notwithstanding. In the event he wins, Assange will not be able to take up his seat for obvious reasons, and so the party’s number two candidate, Melbourne ethicist and author Leslie Cannold, would have taken his place. The party is standing on a platform of human rights, democracy, transparency and accountability.

Except that just a few weeks into the campaign his party promptly imploded and Cannold quit, along with other party figures. The reason? A lack of democracy, transparency and accountability. Oh dear.

The dispute was over the still-unclear set of circumstances which lead to Wikileaks directing its preferences minor right-wing parties ahead of the Greens in NSW, and preferencing against Greens Senator – and staunch Assange supporter – Scott Ludlam.

Also, this happened:

Bob Katter

Bob Katter’s father, Bob Sr, began his political life with the Australian Labor Party, moved to the Democratic Labor Party (formed after the anti-communist split) and eventually migrated to the mainstream Nationals, a rural/agricultural conservative party that works in coalition with the more metropolitan/business conservative Liberal Party. After Bob Sr lost his seat of Kennedy to Labor, Bob Jr won it back, but eventually resigned from the party and sat as an independent until forming the modestly named Katter’s Australian Party in 2011. KAP currently has seats in the Queensland Parliament. He famously appeared in a break dancing video to promote that campaign.

Katter is known for his very large hats and quite old-school blend of economic protectionism and social conservatism. He dislikes the supermarket duopoly (and its impact on farmers) and the carbon tax as much as he dislikes same-sex marriage. He once insisted there were no homosexuals in far north Queensland electorate. Not surprisingly he has been publicly at odds with his gay half-brother.

He also threw eggs at the Beatles once, because sure, why not?

Clive Palmer

It’s easy to mock Clive Palmer, and I’m lazy, so let’s do just that.

Clive Palmer is a mining magnate, onetime football team owner, and former Liberal National Party life member. Having amassed an enormous wealth (in the hundreds of millions), he has turned his attentions to building a replica Titanic and a Jurassic Park-style resort full of an animatronic dinosaurs, as well running for high office. To date he hasn’t married a sub-par singer and built her an opera house, but there’s time.

After planning to stand against Katter in 2012, Palmer became increasingly critical of the LNP and left to found his own Palmer United Party. His platform mostly seems to consist of “mining is great!” (again, opposed to the carbon tax) as well as what appear to be relatively progressive education and refugee policies.

Palmer’s public persona oscillates between “avuncular straight shooter” and “mad as a cut snake”. In response to a critical piece in the Murdoch press this week, Palmer accused Murdoch’s estranged wife, Wendy Deng, of being a Chinese spy. This isn’t the first time he’s played the “accuse your opponents of being in the pay of foreign intelligence services” card either: in 2012 he accused Greenpeace of being funded by the CIA in order to bring down the Australian coal industry.

The rest

We could go on: there’s notorious anti-immigrant former MP Pauline Hanson returning for another stab at the Senate, and firebrand anti-Islam preacher Danny Naliah (who appears to have blamed the 2009 Black Saturday fires, which killed 173 people, on changes to Victoria’s abortion laws).

But all jokes aside, the minor party candidates do tell us something about the state of Australian democracy. The two-party system assumes the diversity of political views can be accommodated within a hopelessly simplistic “left-right” division. Candidates like Katter – socially conservative but pro-nationalisation, anti-carbon tax but protectionist – give the lie to that simple binary. And we need to be reminded of how limited left-right politics is: perhaps Wikileaks’ progressive supporters would have been less shocked to see them preference against the Greens had they noticed the party’s apparent libertarian rather than social-democratic bent.

Compulsory and preferential voting – though both in themselves, I’d suggest, very good things, and worth defending – also compel the major parties to appeal to an “average voter” who turns out to look very much like the voters of suburban Sydney and Melbourne. Charismatic minor party figures may seem surreal and clownish to latte-sipping inner-city sophisticates like myself – but their messages gain traction because, for better or worse, they articulate the worldview of voters who don’t see themselves or their concerns reflected in Canberra.

If these candidates generate a true clash of ideas in a political landscape largely bereft of them, then perhaps we should be grateful for folks like Julian, Bob and Clive.