ALECS Blog

Darmok (the game)

Out of boredom and also a lot of holiday free time, I came up with a little game that might appeal to bibliophiles. First, ask your friends to state a subject that they care about. Then search your book collection for an appropriate quote that captures how you think or feel about that subject. I’ll call the game ‘Darmok’, after that Star Trek episode. The rules of the game are that I can only use my own “lore” (i.e., collection of physical books), and that I had to actively search for a quote that is optimally relevant and informative in some allegorical sense (though I occasionally used Google Books for help). Score is determined by three criteria: (1) Explicitness, (2) Value as allegory or implicature, (3) Relevance.

Here are the results when I played with my friends.

Some attempts are quite successful at (2) implicature and (3) relevance, but did not (1) make explicit reference to the subject:

  • Kyla: “Poutine.”
    • “”I usually come here with a book, even though it’s against doctor’s orders: one eats too quickly and doesn’t chew. But I have a stomach like an ostrich, I can swallow anything. During the winter of 1917, when I was a prisoner, the food was so bad that everyone got ill. Naturally, I went on the sick list like everybody else: but nothing was the matter.” (p.105) Jean-Paul Sartre, “Nausea”
  • Stephanie: “Puns.”
    • “Bybee argues that a solely phonological connection between words — in other words, homophony — is the weakest connection of all… Homophony does give rise to a minor yet robust priming effect. In lexical decision and target naming tasks using homonyms, there is a priming effect of both the contextually appropriate meaning and the homonymous meaning within 0-220 msec of presentation of the stimulus; after 200 msec, only the contextually appropriate meaning is primed… This priming effect indicates that there is a lexical connection based on mere phonological similar, but not a strong one.” (p.303)
      “(8) John and his driving license expired last Thursday.” (p. 113) William Croft & D. Alan Cruse, “Cognitive Linguistics”
  • Steve: “Any string of characters formed from your n books by looking at the n-th character of each book and choosing some other character.
    • “In the preceding example, I have introduced some basic terminology of recursion… The terms are push, pop, and stack… To push means to suspend operations on the task you’re currently working on, without forgetting where you are– and to take up a new task. The new task is usually said to be “on a lower level” than the earlier task. To pop is the reverse — it means to close operations on one level, and to resume operations exactly where you left off, one level higher.“But how do you remember exactly where you were on each different level? The answer is, you store the relevant information in a stack. So a stack is just a table telling you such things as (1) where you were in each unfinished task… (2) what the relevant facts to know were at the points of interruption… When you pop back up to resume some task, it is the stack which restores your context, so you don’t feel lost.” (p.128) Douglas Hofstadter, “Godel, Escher, Bach”

In other cases, I was successful at (1), but not (2) or (3):

  • Lucie: “Bamboo”.
    • “Students of the Vietnamese meditation tradition rely on Flowers in the Garden of Meditation, a book compiled in the fourteenth century. The “flowers” of the title refer to the outstanding meditation masters of Vietnam… According to this book, Tang Hôi established a meditation school in Vietnam, which continued until the Tran era (fourteenth century). After that the meditation school of Tang Hôi, along with other meditation schools, was gradually folded into the Bamboo Forest school which became the predominant school of the meditation tradition in Vietnam.” (p.19) Thich Nhat Hanh, “Master Tang Hôi”

And in others, I was successful at relevance (3), but not (1) or (2):

  • Ashley: “Donuts”
    • “Moreover, a finite universe with the topology of a torus is equivalent to a periodic universe with infinite volume, both mathematically and from the perspective of an observer within it.” (p.122) Max Tegmark, “The multiverse hierarchy”, in “Universe or Multiverse?”, ed. Bernard Carr
  • Robin: “Lidars”
    • “”What’s up, boss?”
      “The comm laser,” Bull said. “Say I wanted to make it into a weapon. What’s the most power we could put through it?”
      Sam’s frown was more than an engineer making mental calculations. The spin gravity made her seem older. Or maybe bathing in death and fear just did that to people.
      “I can make it about as hot as the middle of a star for a fraction of a second,” Sam said. “It’d burn that side of the ship down to a bad smell, though.””
      James SA Corey, “Abaddon’s Gate”

On one occasion I scored zero points, because the value of the quote did not pertain closely enough with the subject:

  • Colin: “Cults”
    • “My publisher asked whether we actually referred to ourselves as economic hit men. I assured him we did, although usually only by the initials. In fact, on the day in 1971 when I began working with my teacher Claudine, she informed me, “My assignment is to mold you into an economic hit man. No one can know about your involvement — not even your wife.” Then she turned serious. “Once you’re in, you’re in for life.” After that she seldom used the full name; we were simply EHMs.” (p.xi) John Perkins, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man”

And on other occasions I hit the high mark on all three:

  • Phil: “Pro wrestling”
    • “The first boy to reach for Calo got a knee in the groin and went down moaning; right behind him came Tesso, with a hard right that sent Calo backwards. Galdo tackled Tesso around the waist, howling, and they hit the ground scrabbling for leverage. ‘Soft talk’ meant no weapons, and no blows that could kill or cripple; just about anything else was on the table. The Sanzas were capable brawlers, but even if Locke had been able to hold up his end of the fight the numbers would have told against them. In the end, after a few minutes of wrestling and swearing and kicking, the three Gentlemen Bastards were dumped in the middle of the alley, dusty and battered.
      ‘Right, lads. Preferences, is it? Let’s hear ’em.’
      ‘Go fold yourself in half,’ said Locke, ‘and lick your arse.'”
      Scott Lynch, The Lies of Locke Lamora
  • Sarah: “climate change”
    • “A giant meteorite, after burning through the atmosphere, crashed into the planet’s surface… It rang Earth’s crust like a bell, triggering volcanic eruptions around the world. The ejecta darkened the sky, altering the global climate… [The event] was the fifth disturbance of this great magnitude in Earth’s history during the 400 million years previous to that time… Now a sixth spasm has begun, this one a result of human activity.” (p. 73-4)

      “[Diversity of] species do not occur evenly over the land and sea, but in concentrations called hot spots.” (p.94)

      “In 2000 Conservation International sponsored a conference of biologists and economists, entitled ‘Defying Nature’s End’, to address this matter… They concluded that in order to put a protective umbrella over the twenty-five hottest spots on the land then recognized… plus core areas within the remaining tropical forest wildernesses… would require one payment of about $30 billion. The benefit… would be substantial protection for 70 percent of Earth’s land-dwelling fauna and flora.” (p.98) E.O. Wilson, “The Creation”

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Scattered thoughts on religion

Oh, look! Here are two hands. They are balled up into tight little fists. Each has a perspective in it and both are mine.

Hand one: I take comfort in those who criticize religion thoughtfully, because the criticism reflects the vibrancy and strength of a society of free (albeit well-trodden) thought. Indeed, I think religious claims to authority ought to be vigorously challenged in the public sphere to earn their keep. Moreover, I find the ‘meaning of life’ question more honestly answered by watching the Discovery Channel than by the Summa Theologica or the Tao Te Ching. In epistemology I observe a relatively thick distinction between reasons and evidence, and insist that putatively divine ‘datum’ (revelations, intuitions, insights) do not count as evidentiary.

Hand two: Still, if you call me ‘atheist’, there is some sense in which my introspective life makes you a liar. I pray, and have prayed, as a form of meditation. Increasingly, existentialism has seemed rather point-missing (with the exception of Paul Tillich, who was canny). I think that Alex Rosenberg’s nihilism marks the low water mark of new atheist metaphysics. As far as the ethics of belief is concerned, I think William James had it over W.J. Clifford, owing to the histrionic bombast of the latter (despite some of the feeble arguments of the former). While I think people should generally assert what they know, uptake demands simplification, so knowledge is not a constitutive norm of rational assertion.

I can’t pretend that I’ve always had these views. As a boy, I was pious in the way that boys are, being attracted to the idea of playing a role in a bigger story. But gradually, I realized that the impulse to pray in Western Protestantism is often toxic, based on wish-fulfillment instead of enlightenment — and that felt creepy. Once I realized that culturally fashionable forms of prayer provided me with no moral comfort whatsoever, religion lost most of its appeal. I stopped caring as a matter of principle. As a young man, I preferred the term ‘apatheist’, meaning, constitutively agnostic owing to not giving a shit about the God question. Later, after witnessing the growth of religious lunacy in the US, I preferred ‘quietism’, meaning that I think religious belief is not public business.

The times have pressed me into transcendentalism, which holds that natural cycles are valuable independently of autonomous or collective volition. Transcendentalism fits nicely with my general, uh, shtick. There is certainly quite a lot of virtue in collecting your thoughts away from social media, and in rooting your sense of value in what can be justified independently of pragmatic consequences. The transcendentalist asks the individual to think of nature as a source of value — and this seems to require us to look hard for patterns of behaviors and to revel in them. In this sense it is the philosophy of discovery, of empirical daring-do.

Transcendentalism also has a better account of absurdity than existentialism, in the sense that a lot of life’s absurdity comes from the plain fact that quite a lot of nature is utterly, wonderfully, mechanistically bonkers. Not just because there is a conflict between the internal and external points of view (though there is), but because nature is weird in itself.

**

I guess this is all on my mind because, a few weeks ago, while enjoying my coffee, I overheard two Protestant evangelicals explain their feelings to each other in terms of apocalyptic death parables. They used code-phrases that were, apparently, quite significant to them; “keep the porch light on” being a favorite. That was followed up with rapturous references to Revelation theology, and the building of the third temple in Jersalem, and, etc. It does not take a master cryptographer to understand their meaning. It only takes an episode of Star Trek:Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra“. For them, “keep the porch light on” implies, roughly, “let me have something to live for”; and the apocalyptic references imply, “Or else.”

The thing that makes philosophy so difficult, and so valuable, is that it asks us to try to avoid errors in judgment that are associated with certain kinds of analogical conceptual processing. You see, the ways that we categorize our concepts have a direct effect on the ways that we ascribe and detect errors when we go about making inferences from one judgment to another, insofar as our inferences feature those concepts. Philosophy, at its best, asks us to raise our conversational game, to infer according to rules that are more theory-like and less story-like.

For the educated person, the dangers of losing oneself to the story-telling mind are all too clear. For it is possible, and all-too-easy, to find yourself reasoning exclusively by analogy or meme, operating from one dogwhistle to the next. Hearing people talk that way about how they think is absolutely, positively uncanny.

Oh, look! Here are two hands. They are balled up into tight little fists. In the one, I have the weird — Douglas Adams (of Last Chance to See), Ursula K. LeGuin, and China Mieville; in the other, the transcendentalists — Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller.

Modeling the concept of genocide

This month I’ve talked a little about conceptual spaces, and a little about genocide, and a little about law and non-classical categories. Now I would like to tie the strings together by showing what use computer models might have in relation to those subjects.

This past week I have been graphing the concept of genocide for the sake of demonstrating the potential appeal of the conceptual spaces paradigm. The hope is to find some way of capturing the information that a person processes which underlie their judgments about how to categorize episodes of genocide, in the absence of classical category structures imposed by definitional fiat. From the jurist’s point of view, looking at concepts in this way is legally obtuse, and hence of at best indirect importance to a court — which, of course it is. On the other hand, if the conceptual spaces paradigm is a worthwhile attempt to describe psychological processing, it is of great importance to a people. And since virtually everybody in the history of the philosophy of law believes that law is only valid law when promulgated, and promulgation presupposes shared conceptual inventory… well, you get the idea.

In the previous post I took a look at Paul Boghossian’s (2011) critique of the concept of genocide. (I could have chosen any number of scholarly critiques of genocide to focus on — e.g., R. J. Rummel — but settled on Boghossian’s paper for the prosaic reason that his paper is available for free on academia.edu.) Boghossian offered a few cases which seemed to intuitively challenge the classical conception — the case of targeted warfare (Dresden), an imagined case of gendercide, and Stalin’s dekulakization. I take it that his remarks are not proposed in an effort to undermine the UN’s 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, but rather to perhaps complicate and enrich it by making its intrinsic motivations more defensible.

Fig.1.
Fig.1. Venn. Classic boundary structure.

The classical concept of genocide looks something like the Venn Diagram we see to the right. Put succinctly, genocide is the use of atrocious means, against vital populations, with the intrinsic end of destroying at least some of that population (i.e., destruction of the group is an end-in-itself). These strict criteria tell us what the international court would have to say about Boghossian’s cases: that dekulakization and gendercide don’t count (economic classes and genders are not protected populations). Meanwhile, the facts about Dresden and Nagasaki are borderline cases, depending on the intentions of the Allies in charge of the war. But a reasonable person might wonder whether the underlying legislation is a result of political expediency and moral complicity as opposed to the strict and merciless requirements of justice.

To get a better sense of the psychological lay of the land, I decided to create a model of the conceptual space of genocide. The really wonky methods I used are discussed in the next section. For now, I’ll just discuss a few interesting implications from what I found.

Fig.2.
Fig.2. Gephi, which is a networked concept. “Distances” are approximated by color groupings.

One potentially interesting result that I keep running into, at least for the latest iteration of the model, is that American slavery occupies a space relatively close to the Holocaust. (see right) This happens even though no direct analytical links force the two together, and despite the fact that this was not an effect I was expecting. Compare that to the classic categorization pictured in the Venn diagram (above), where slavery is treated as a definite non-case.

This might be worth noting, I think, because if the spatial analysis had any probative worth, then it might be an interesting part of a roundabout explanation of America’s long-standing hesitation to intervene in episodes of genocide worldwide, discussed by Samantha Power. You can tell a story where the American civil war places them on awkward footing with the idea of genocide, because they share the same conceptual space, though are not technically part of the same legal category.

Fig.3.
Fig.3. VOSViewer. Genocide as a spatial concept.

But I should place emphasis on ‘if-then’. The use of the model is questionable, and depends on what you think of the methods behind the model. If you are interested in those, keep reading. Still, even if we think the model has little probative value, I would be satisfied to see more conversation in philosophy about the usefulness of conceptual spaces when thinking about how concepts and categories are received.

Continue reading “Modeling the concept of genocide”

Notes on the concept of genocide

IMG_2293

Remembrance Day has come and gone. I spent it in an Armory, listening to my parents’ choir, singing a rendition of Flander’s Fields and Handel and so on. All the hits, basically.

Samantha Power’s “A Problem from Hell” (2002) is a history of the concept of genocide. She argues that the American government’s default attitude to genocide is ambivalence.* Even if you disagree with her assessment of American foreign policy, it is also a lucid and useful volume just for the sake of understanding the imperfect legacy of the idea.

In international law, genocide is any act which involves (a) use of at least some atrocious means, (b) against protected groups as such, with (c) the intent to eliminate at least part of those groups. The atrocities in question include: killing, serious bodily or mental harm, deliberately undermining conditions of life (e.g., ghettoization), forced sterilization, and forcible transfer of children. The protected groups are “national, ethnical, racial, or religious”, and to target these groups ‘as such’ is to treat their destruction as a worthy end in itself and not just a means to a further end. Notably, this definition applies even when the aggressor is the ruler or sovereign over the targeted peoples, and it applies during wartime.

In this conceptual space the Holocaust of the Second World War is the prototype of genocide, since that episode involved all of the atrocious means (killing, torture, sterilization, etc.) and was perpetrated against the protected groups as such. During the course of Power’s recounting, we learn of other definite exemplars of genocide in the 20th century — the Armenian genocide by the Turks, the Khmer Rouge’s assault on urban centers in Cambodia, Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against the Kurds, the massacre of Muslims in Bosnia, the Tutsis in Rwanda, and so on.

Though Power does not discuss this, it is noteworthy that the Canadian residential schools program was genocide. During that decades-long institutional crime against humanity, persons of Indigenous descent were sterilized and their children were forcibly relocated, notably during the period known as the “Sixties Scoop“. It has been alleged that episodes related to this event occurred up to 2017. To be sure, it is not be a prototype in the region of conceptual space of “genocide”, but it is a definite case.

**

For some Canadians this may be too much to take in. Nobody wants to be complicit in genocide, so denial of the facts is one strategy. However, there might be some problems with our grasp of the concept itself, which are getting in the way of getting accepted. That is, there might be features of the definition that hard to deploy in cognition, because our usage fails to meet the virtues of a well-behaved categorization.

So, for instance. Some time ago, Paul Boghossian suggested that the concept of genocide was irremediably defective. His arguments are reasonable. But is he right to suggest that the concept of genocide is especially hard to parse?

I must confess that not all of his arguments struck me as decisive. (1) So, for instance, the law requires actions that are intended to eliminate at least part of a protected group, and this “in part” clause is vague to the point of ambiguity. Boghossian argues that this is a major defect. But: for one thing, as many philosophers of law will tell you, that is one of the ambiguities that is strategic to lawmaking, as it affords a legal culture the opportunity to deliberate on the moral, political, and common-sense features of a non-obvious question in the mereology of social ontology. (2) For another thing, he argues that genocide is meant to be a distinctive injustice as a matter of analytical fact. But we can reasonably question whether genocide is distinctively worse than cases of mass killings without being incoherent, which (for classical conceptual analysts) should be sufficient reason to dismiss the need to establish that genocide is a distinct moral wrong. I think it is enough to establish that it is a wrong somewhere at the top of the heap of moral wrongs.

That said, many of Boghossian’s points are worth consideration. He identified several cases that are ostensibly excluded, but which ought to be included:

  • Stalin’s dekulakization was directed towards an economic class of ostensibly well-off peasants, the Kulaks, that resulted in millions of deaths by way of forced redistribution of essential goods necessary for life (a). This apparently does not count as genocide because “economic class” is not a protected group, (b). (For the sake of completeness, we might also include questions about whether or not it is targeting “as such”, as opposed to instrumentally targeting for the sake of collectivization.)
  • He wonders whether or not the intention of exterminating part of a gender would count. (e.g., we might cite sex selection and infanticide in the developing world.)

He also considered some cases that ought to be excluded, but are mistakenly included:

  • Egregious wartime episodes like the firebombing of Dresden or the bombing of Nagasaki, targeted nationalities as such, using atrocious means. But (Boghossian suggests) this is an awkward fit, since the episodes occurred during wartime. For him, these are not obvious cases of genocide, since it is at least plausible to say that they were targeted as a means to an end, the end being to end the war.

Ordinarily, this would be the place where I would argue for one or another categorization of the concept of genocide, such that these apparent exceptions are finessed into a rendering of a coherent whole, either decisively rejected as cases of genocide or decisively included.

But I will not do that. What I would prefer to do is examine the concept of genocide as a perspicuous region in conceptual space, following the methods in the previous post. Perhaps that will have to wait for a different installment.

**

*Her thesis has to be slightly complicated once you factor in G.W. Bush’s neo-conservative moralism when he argued in favor of the second invasion of Iraq in 2002 — but only slightly. History shows that that policy decision was driven by other factors — as I experience flashbacks to Condeleeza Rice’s “smoking gun mushroom cloud”, Colin Powell’s credibility-deflating testimony before the UN, and the bewilderment of the intelligence community reflected in the Downing Street Memo, and John Bolton’s ongoing impulse-control problems. Still, even if you grant that neo-conservatism certainly sold itself as a moralistic doctrine, it appears as a historical blip. And there is probably no surer evidence of this fact than Samantha Power herself was ousted from her position as representative to the UN during the crypto-isolationistic Trump administration.

Potted summary: “Reasoning About Categories in Conceptual Spaces”

What follows is a short summary of the main elements of a paper written by Peter Gardenfors (Lund) & Mary-Anne Williams (Newcastle) in their paper from 2001, “Reasoning About Categories in Conceptual Spaces”. It contains a way of thinking about concepts and categorization that seems quite lovely to me, as it captures something about the meat and heft of discussions of cognition, ontology, and lexical semantics by deploying a stock of spatial metaphors that is accessible to most of us. I confess that I cannot be sure I have understood the paper in its entirety (and if I have not, feel free to comment below). But I do think the strategy proposed in their paper deserves wider consideration in philosophy. So what follows is my attempt to capture the essential first four sections of the paper in Tractarian form.

  1. An object is a function of the set of all its qualities. (For example, a song is composed of a set of notes.)
    1. Every quality occurs in some domain(s) of evaluation. (e.g., each tone has a pitch, frequency, etc.)
    2. A conceptual space is a set of evaluative domains or metrics. (So, the conceptual space around a particular song is the set of metrics used to gauge its qualities: pitch, frequency, etc.)
    3. Just like ordinary space, a conceptual space contains points and regions. Hence, an object is a point in conceptual space.
    4. We treat some objects as prototypes with respect to the part of conceptual space they are in (e.g., the prototype of a bird is a robin.)
      1. Those objects which have been previously encountered (e.g., in inductive fashion), and their location registered, are exemplars.
  2. A concept is a region in conceptual space.
    1. Some of those regions are relatively amorphous, reflecting the fact that some concepts are not reliable and relevant in the judgments we make. (e.g., a Borgesian concept.)
    2. Categorization identifies regions of conceptual space with a structure. e.g., in our folk taxonomy, we have super-ordinate, basic, and sub-ordinate categories.
      • Super-ordinate categories are abstract (fewer immediate subcategories, high generality, e.g., ‘furniture’); basic categories are common-sense categories (lots of immediate subcategories, medium generality; e.g., ‘chairs’); and sub-ordinate categories are detail-oriented (few immediate subcategories, low generality; e.g., ‘Ikea-bought chaise-longue’).
    3. The boundaries of a category are chosen or “built”, depending on the structure that is identified with the concept in the context of the task. They can be classical (“discrete”) boundaries, or graded, or otherwise, depending on the demands of content, context, and choice.
    4. The structure of a conceptual space is determined by the similarity relations (“distances“) between points (or regions) in that space.
    5. One (but only one) useful way of measuring distance in a conceptual space is figuring out the distance between cases and prototypes, which are especially salient points in conceptual space.
      • Every prototype has a zone of influence. The size of that zone is determined by any number of different kinds of considerations.
  3. There are at least three kinds of structure: connectedness, projectability (“star-shapedness”), and perspicuity (“convexity”).
    1. A conceptual region is connected so long as it is not the disjoint union of two non-empty closed sets. By inference, then, a conceptual region is disconnected so long as its constituents each contain a single cluster, the sets intersect, but the intersection is empty. For example, the conceptual region that covers “the considered opinions of Margaret Wente” is disconnected, since the intersection of those sets is empty.
    2. Projectability (they call it ‘star-shapedness’) means that, for a particular given case, and all points in a conceptual space, the distance between all points and the case do not exit the space.
      1. For example, consider the concept of “classic works of literature”, and let “For Whom the Bell Tolls” be a prototype; and reflect on the aesthetic qualities and metrics that would make it so. Now compare that concept and case to “Naked Lunch”, which is a classic work of literature which asks to be read in terms of exogenous criteria that have little bearing on what counts as a classic work of literature. There is no straight line you can draw in conceptual space between “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “Naked Lunch” without wandering into alien, interzone territory. For the purposes of this illustration, “For Whom…” is not projectable.
    3. Perspicuity (or contiguity; they call it ‘convexity’) means all points of a conceptual space are projectable with each other.
      • By analogy, the geography of the United States is not perspicuous, because there is no location in the continental United States that is projectable (given that Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Alaska all cross spaces that are not America).
      • According to the authors, the so-called “natural kinds” of the philosopher seem to correspond to perspicuous categories. Presumably, sub-ordinate folk categories are more likely to count as perspicuous than basic or super-ordinate ones.
  4. One mechanism for categorization is tessellation.
    1. Tessellation occurs according to the following rule: every point in the conceptual space is associated with its nearest prototype.
    2. Abstract categorizations tessellate over whole regions, not just points in a region. (Presumably, this accounts for the structure of super-ordinate categorizations.)
      1. There are at least two different ways of measuring distances between whole regions: additively weighted distance and power distance. Consider, for example, the question: “What is the distance between Buffalo and Toronto?”, and consider, “What counts as ‘Toronto’?”
        1. For non-Ontarian readers: the city of Toronto is also considered a “megacity”, which contains a number of outlying cities. Downtown Toronto, or Old Toronto, is the prototype of what counts as ‘Toronto’.
        2. Roughly speaking, an additively weighted distance is the distance between a case and the outer bounds of the prototype’s zone of influence. 2
          • So, the additively weighted distance between Buffalo and Toronto is calculated between Buffalo and the furthest outer limit of the megacity of Toronto, e.g., Mississauga, Burlington, etc.
          • The authors hold that additively weighted distances are useful in modeling the growth of concepts, given an analogy to the ways that these calculations are made in biology with respect to the growth of cells.
          • In a manner of speaking, you might think of this as the “technically correct” (albeit, expansive) distance to Toronto.
        3. Power distance measures the distance between a case and the nearest prototype, weighted by the prototype’s relative zone of influence.
          • So, the power distance between Buffalo and Toronto is a function of the distance between between Buffalo, the old city of Toronto, and the outermost limit of the megacity of Toronto. Presumably, in this context, it would mean that one could not say they are ‘in Toronto’ until they reached somewhere around Oakville.
          • This is especially useful when the very idea of what counts as ‘Toronto’ is indeterminate, since it involves weighting multiple factors and points and triangulating the differences between them. Presumably, the power distance is especially useful in constructing basic level categories in our folk taxonomy.
          • In a manner of speaking, you might think of this as the “substantially correct” distance to Toronto.
        4. So, to return to our example: the additively weighted distance from Buffalo to Toronto is relatively shorter than when we look at the power distance, depending on our categorization of the concept of ‘Toronto’.
    3. For those of you who don’t want to go to Toronto, similar reasoning applies when dealing with concepts and categorization.

Non-classical conceptual analysis in law and cognition

Some time ago I discovered a distaste for classical conceptual analysis, with its talk of individually-necessary-and-jointly-sufficient conditions for concepts. I can’t quite remember when it began — probably it was first triggered when reading Lakoff’s popular (and, in certain circles of analytic philosophy, despised) Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things; solidified in reading Croft and Cruse’s readable Cognitive Semantics; edified in my conversations with neuroscientist/philosopher Chris Eliasmith at Waterloo; and matured when reading Elijah Millgram’s brilliantly written Hard Truths. In the most interesting parts of the cognitive science literature, concepts do not play an especially crucial role in our mental life (assuming they exist at all).

Does that mean that our classic conception of philosophy (of doing conceptual analysis) is doomed? Putting aside meta-philosophical disagreements over method (e.g., x-phi and the armchair), the upshot is “not necessarily”. The only thing you really need to understand about the cognitive scientist’s enlarged sense of analysis is that it redirects the emphasis we used to place on concepts, and asks us to place renewed weight on the idea of dynamic categorization. With this slight substitution taken on board, most proposition-obsessed philosophers can generally continue as they have.

Here is a quick example. So, classical “concepts” which ostensibly possess strict boundaries — e.g., the concept of number — are treated as special cases which we decide to interpret or construe in a particular sort of way in accordance with the demands of the task. For example, the concept of “1” can be interpreted as a rational number or as a natural one, as its boundaries are determined by the evaluative criteria relevant to the cognitive task. To be sure, determining the relevant criterion for a task is a nigh-trivial exercise in the context of arithmetic, because we usually enter into those contexts knowing perfectly well what kind of task we’re up to, so the point in that context might be too subtle to be appreciable on first glance. But the point can be retained well enough by returning to the question, “What is the boundaries of ‘1’?” The naked concept does not tell us until we categorize it in light of the task, i.e., by establishing that we are considering it as a rational or a natural.

Indeed, the multiple categorizability of concepts is familiar to philosophers, as it captures the fact that we seem to have multiple, plausible interpretations of concepts in the form of definitions, which are resolved through gussied-up Socratic argument. Hence, people argue about the meaning of “knowledge” by motivating their preferred evaluative criteria, like truth, justification, belief, reliability, utility, and so on. The concept of knowledge involves all the criteria (in some amorphous sense to be described in another post), while the categorization of the concept is more definite in its intensional and extensional attributes, i.e., its definition and denotation.

The nice thing about this enlarged picture of concepts and category analysis is that seems to let us do everything we want when we do philosophy. On the one hand, it is descriptively adequate, as it covers a wider range of natural language concepts than the classical model, and hence appeals to our sympathies for the later Wittgenstein. On the other hand, it still accommodates classical categorizations, and so does not throw out the baby with the bathwater, so not really getting in the way of Frege or Russell. And it does all that while still permitting normative conceptual analysis, in the form of ameliorative explications of concepts, where our task is to justify our choices of evaluative criteria, hence doing justice to the long productive journey between Carnap and Kuhn described in Michael Friedman’s Dynamics of Reason.

While that is all nice, I didn’t really start to feel confident about the productivity of this cognitivist perspective on concepts until I started reading philosophy of law. One of the joys of reading work in the common-law tradition is that you find that there is a broad understanding that conceptual analysis is a matter of interpretation under some description. Indeed, the role of interpretation to law is a foundational point in Ronald Dworkin, which he used it to great rhetorical effect in Law’s Empire. But you can find it also at the margins of HLA Hart’s The Concept of Law, as Hart treats outlying cases of legal systems (e.g., international law during the 1950’s) as open to being interpreted as legal systems, and does not dismiss them as definitely being near-miss cases of law. Here, we find writers who know how to do philosophy clearly, usefully, and (for the most part) unpretentiously. The best of them understand the open texture of concepts, but do not see this as reason to abandon logical and scholarly rigor. Instead, it leads them to ask further questions about what counts as rigor in light of the cognitive and jurisprudential tasks set for them. There is a lot to admire about that.

The de se route to justifying prime face claims

There is quite a lot of utility in distinguishing prime facie and pro tanto reasons for action. It sure seems to many of us that philosophical or meta-ethical good sense to articulate ethical claims (including, come to that, duties) in terms of reasons. But if that’s true, then at least on face value, it would seem natural to also suppose that the magnitude of a claim (or duty) should track the magnitude of a reason, all other things equal.

So, for example, there is just plumb good sense in understanding minimally good reasons for action as ones that have “squatter’s rights” (to borrow a phrase from Graham & Horgan, itself borrowed from Owen Flanagan). The idea here is that a normative “stickiness” is intrinsic to pro tanto claims, and such claims have a default hold upon us that has to be positively displaced by another claim before it can be dismissed or outweighed. This property is somehow lacking for prime facie ethical claims — or, anyway, those prime facie claims that are not also pro tanto ones. For instance, ‘gratitude’ does not readily apply at all to the strict interpretation of the trolley problem, so it can’t be said to have a normative ‘stickiness’ in that context. It does not have squatter’s rights, since it is not even squatting.

When thinking about what it is that the prime facie ethical claims are lacking, my first temptation is to assimilate the idea of apparent (prime facie) reasons for action to de se reasons, i.e., the sort that are entertained in rational, relativistic judgments. For there are such things as relativistic rational judgments (e.g., in art). Hence, apparently, Youtube McCray’s opinion that The Last Jedi is a bad film may be reason for McCray to boycott it. It just isn’t a proper reason to boycott it (de re), because it does not direct my action in the slightest. It is just a reason-for-McCray (de se).* The upshot of this analysis is that merely apparent reasons for action are minimally good reasons for you, but not minimally good for everyone else (pro tanto & de se == prime facie & de re).

Does it work? Well, it seems like a viable characterization of our duties of self-improvement, which are certainly part of the Big Seven Topics that Ross cared about. As I mentioned previously, this was a major point of contention for Ross in his description of his project. So there is a useful sense in talking about merely apparent reasons in ordinary talk, if only to capture the common denominator of the Big Seven.

Does it make sense to say that all of Ross’s prime facie claims are de se reasons? Here is one reason to think not: some people would like to say that such relativistic (de se) reasons are not distinctively ethical, in the sense of commanding shared rational attention of particular (virtue-leaning) kinds of people. For example, Hume’s obtuse man who refuses to scratch his finger to save the world: while this might be a case of someone who has a prime facie reason in some amoral sense, it is not a prime facie ethical claim. And since Ross is interested in the objective parts of the moral situation, one might think any talk of objectivity precludes reference to relativistic (de se) reasons, since they sound suspiciously like subjective features of a situation. So a critic might allege that this talk about apparent reasons is so ethically defective as to be indefensible. My first inclinations, then, are seemingly off base.

*No such person exists. I would have used the more obvious empty name, “Youtube McGee”, except that it doesn’t rhyme with “de se”.

A prime facie what?

On the heels of the previous post, I have been wondering about what it would really take to be a prime facie duty. Ideally, an account should make it clear whether or not Ross has correctly identified the nature and usefulness of the familiar Big Seven topics (beneficence, non-maleficence, fidelity, etc.) by choosing ‘prime facie‘ as a label. And it is not an embarrassing question, given that Ross’s original remarks from The Right and The Good are provisional and apology-laden, so surely invite friendly re-evaluation (even if it must be confessed that one is not breaking new ground in thinking through a text that is almost a century old).

In my previous post I alleged that there is such a thing as a prime facie reason that is not minimally good (pro tanto). Some reasons are not, as a matter of fact, good reasons — they only seem to be good under some description. This is a point I have explored in other blogging (here and here). Now the question is whether any of those prime facie reasons are helpful in expressing the grounds upon which one might make a claim of responsibility over actions and events (to take up Brandon’s suggestion), and in that sense be worthy of being called ‘prime facie duties’.

The first obstacle is that Ross himself did not believe that he was describing a set of duties at all. The product is not as advertised:

I suggest ‘prima facie duty’ or ‘conditional duty’ as a brief way of referring to the characteristic (quite distinct from that of being a duty proper) which an act has, in virtue of being of a certain kind (e.g. the keeping of a promise), of being an act which would be a duty proper if it were not at the same time of another kind which is morally significant. Whether an act is a duty proper or actual duty depends on all the morally significant kinds it is an instance of. The phrase ‘prima facie duty’ must be apologized for, since (1) it suggests that what we are speaking of is a certain kind of duty, whereas it is in fact not a duty, but something related in a special way to duty. Strictly speaking, we want not a phrase in which duty is qualified by an adjective, but a separate noun.

I think we are obliged to flagrantly ignore Ross’s secondary suggestion of ‘conditional duty’ as a synonym for ‘prime facie duty’. For, given that Ross is at great pains to walk around eggshells when it comes to description of the idea of a ‘duty’, the phrase sounds very much like it is describing the same thing as a hypothetical imperative. And the connotation has consequences. For if you (like Philippa Foot) think that all of morality is a system of hypothetical imperatives, then it’s going to be hard to distinguish between prime facie duties and minimally good (pro tanto) reasons for action. His intent, of course, was to say that these are duties in context, but not duties as such. That would make them hypothetical principles which fall short of being imperatives. But you can’t untie a knot by adding new ones, so let’s just put the matter aside.

For Ross, prime facie duties are not duties. This is, of course, a needlessly paradoxical way of speaking, but it has some traction in ordinary language. Consider, by analogy, the fact that we currently describe the solar system in terms of ‘dwarf planets’ (Pluto, Eres, The Goblin) and ‘planets’ (Earth, Mars, etc.), but our terminology is not very good, because strictly speaking a dwarf planet is not a species of planet, but rather is a near-miss case. If we kept our lexical house in order, we should be calling Pluto and friends something else entirely — a planetelle, planetilly, planetaine, or whatever. So long as a distinction is made between bodies which have ordinary and extraordinary orbits around the sun, the label is not important. Similarly, Ross is telling us that the “prime facie duties” are not really duties, but strictly speaking are near-miss cases of duties, and if we knew what was good for us we would call them something else — claims, topics, grounds, or whatever. So long as the idea of an ethically probative reason is retained, the label can be left to future lexical housekeeping.

Instead, it seems best to adopt the phrase ‘prime facie claim‘. This option is explicitly rejected by Ross because he thinks a “claim” strongly implies sociality, and hence fails to describe claims one might make upon oneself. To me, however, this seems like a bad lexical choice. It is better to prefer the artificial to the positively misleading. And anyway I find nothing at all unintuitive or odd about the idea that one may make claims of oneself. Perhaps conventions have changed; my sense is that many contemporary philosophers (e.g., Lon Fuller) are willing to say that there are self-directed or agentic duties. We proceed, however, on the assumption that nothing will be lost in the new usage except a little verbal confusion.

Topical duties and the force of reasons

Over at Siris (a great blog), Brandon has a nice post on Ross’s “prime facie” duties. I’ve been thinking about Rossian pluralism for the last little while, so it caught my attention. I agree with much of the post, but also think I have a minor philosophical (not scholarly) quarrel with it. I confess it is a little nitpicky — to the point where I would ordinarily have just posted it over there in the form of a question. However, I can’t comment over there without using Discus, and Discus is either incompatible with Firefox or is otherwise cranky, so I’ll have to post my thoughts here. I’m sorry / you’re welcome.

For the sake of context, here is a brief summary of the post. Broadly speaking, Brandon’s argument seems to have three aims. First, he offers a few observations about the inadequacies of the label of “prime facie” duty, suggesting that we are better-off calling these topical duties (deontic topoi). Second, he suggests that the character of the duties are best understood as the kinds of reasons that are relevant when we assume responsibility over actions and situations. And, third, he suggests that the nature of the inter-relations of the duties is best understood when viewed in the context of the humanitarian tradition, concerned with medicine, apparently as opposed to (e.g.) law.

I agree with his first point entirely, and I love the second point. I am inclined to disagree with the third point, because it seems to me that privileging one relevant responsibility-bearing context over another might lead us to miss out on the most promising features of Ross’s contextual pluralism. But I will the main issues aside. My concern for the moment is with a footnoted remark he makes related to the second thesis, where he explores the relationship between topical duties and reasons.

Before I make a deep dive into the discussion, I will interpret the Latin qualifiers in the following way. ‘Prime facie‘ (preferred spelling, sorry) means ‘on the face of it’, ‘pro tanto‘ means ‘minimally good’, and ‘prime ultima‘ means ‘peremptory’ or ‘decisive’.

Here is the footnote (reposted in its entirety to give you a sense of its context, bolding added):

People have argued that Ross should have used ‘pro tanto‘ rather than ‘prima facie‘, but I don’t think this is any sort of improvement. ‘Prima facie duties’ at least has the merit of suggesting that they are not necessarily duties, which thus far is at least not wrong; ‘pro tanto duties’ suggests that they are partial duties, which is certainly not right. Nor does it help to switch to ‘pro tanto reasons’, because (while they would certainly be more accurately called ‘reasons’ than ‘duties’), they are not ‘pro tanto‘ as reasons; they are just reasons. At least, if we call them ‘pro tanto‘ they aren’t so in any sense that they don’t share with most of the things we call ‘reasons’.

Here is how I understand what is happening in this paragraph. In the unbolded passage, Brandon considers the possibility that we should examine topical duties in terms of pro tanto duties, and then dismisses that possibility as untenable. Which is fair enough; after all, in some contexts, some topical duties (e.g., gratitude) are just not relevant to the moral features of the situation. Then, in the bolded passage, he considers the possibility that topical duties are pro tanto reasons, and dismisses that claim. Which is almost fine — since, like him, I doubt that topical duties are themselves minimally good (pro tanto) reasons for action. To be very clear, I essentially agree with both claims. Ross’s topical duties are not straightforwardly described as pro tanto reasons, nor can they be understood as pro tanto duties.

What I am concerned with is the reason he uses to dismiss the ‘pro tanto reasons’ reading — he claims that topical duties “are not ‘pro tanto’ as reasons; they are just reasons“. I am not sure what this amounts to. In particular, I am concerned with the contrast between minimally good (pro tanto) reasons and reasons as such. It is natural, as either a reading or a misreading, to think that this passage is telling us that there is no reason to believe that topical duties provide minimally good reasons for action, in any sense that does not apply to all talk to reasons. That is to say, all reasons are minimally good reasons, in some sense, so adding ‘pro tanto’ in front of the name is not any help. Hopefully that is an accurate characterization of what Brandon had in mind, here. Anyway, let’s assume it is. Is it true?

I think not. While it is true that all reasons are presented under the guise of being good reasons, that does not imply that all reasons are in fact minimally good, in any sense that is usually at issue in reasons-talk in ethical contexts. For some reasons only seem to be good, but dissolve under scrutiny, as the weight against them overwhelms (or subverts!) their initial, first-blush appeal. Those, and only those, are worth being called prime facie reasons or duties.

So, for an example of a prime facie reason, take Hume’s obtuse rational man, who says “Let the whole world burn, for the sake of a scratch of my finger”. The reason to avoid a finger-prick is presented as good, and intelligible enough to understand Hume’s point, but it is not minimally good. For, as I see it, when presented out of context, “scratching my finger” is bad, and so avoiding that is a minimally good reason for me to act in a certain way. But when that same event is presented in the context of saving the world, it is not a minimally good reason. For persons of conscience, there is no rational contest, no agonizing over the relative weight of mid-level principles, where ‘avoid pricking your finger’ plays the role of a defeated contestant. In that context, it is mere ephemera. We call it a reason for action only because we want to understand the obtuse rational man’s claim, which includes understanding what is wrong with it.

I suggest that this Humean example is only a prime facie reason; I do not suggest it is a prime facie duty. My aim here has only been to offer reason to doubt that most of our talk about reasons are also about pro tanto reasons.

Blast from the past: an interview with Avi Lewis

This is an interview I conducted with journalist, producer, and talk show host Avi Lewis during 1999. Lewis has had many accomplishments, but at the time I knew him for his gig co-hosting and reporting for The New Music on the Much Music Network (1996-99), and for his role in producing and hosting the CBC panel show Counterspin (1998-2004). During that period, I was in high school, and considering a career in journalism. I was then — as now — an admirer of his work, and he was both very gracious and very generous for letting me interview him for a school project. For those reasons, it is fair to say that the exchange was a defining moment in how I approach life.

I reproduce some of it here, because it meant something to me, and because it’s a delight to read, and also because it captures something about what Canadian media culture was like during the late-90s. Topics run the gamut, from standards of journalistic objectivity to the perils of being misinterpreted, from Monsanto to Leonard Cohen, from Merlin to Spiderman.

 


Me: When are you afraid, if ever, that your questions will be misinterpreted (during an interview)?

Lewis: Well, let me start by saying that Counterspin is an unusual show. The purpose of the show is to have a host that is opinionated. The traditional idea of a host, especially the CBC idea of a host, is that [the host] doesn’t have an opinion. This is abandoned. The basic premise for this – and I’ve talked to [the head of CBC Newsworld] about it explicitly – is that the idea of people not having a point of view is so clearly bullshit.

Me (laughing): Yeah.

Lewis: It’s just not particularly helpful in doing journalism, and especially during debate. Although a lot of viewers have a connection to hosts that don’t take sides, and that’s what a lot of the audience expects. For a lot of things, that is certainly appropriate. But for a debate show, especially when you see people hosting debates, and they clearly have a point of view but are inhibited by tradition from expressing it… it always comes out in some way. Like, they ask much tougher questions to one side than the other, or cut people off, and are noticeably impatient with the people they disagree with. Those passive aggressive ways that hosts convey their point of view I think are not nearly as helpful as a host that says, “Here’s where I’m coming from, where are you coming from?” Because there’s a key difference between being ‘neutral’ and being fair. I’m certainly not neutral, but that doesn’t stop me from being fair, in fact I think it helps me to be fair.

Me: So, by coming right out and saying “this is what I think, what do you think”, you’re hoping that any misunderstandings will be clarified right on the spot?

Lewis: That’s the hope. However, to finally answer your question: I don’t fear of getting misinterpreted, but I get misinterpreted anyway. There have been a couple of delicious examples. For instance, I’ve been trying to do a show all year on bioengineering of foods, and genetic modification of foods, because it is a topic that I am really disturbed by. I think it’s completely driven by multinational corporations like Monsanto, who are manipulating their vast control over the food industry in, I think, really scary ways.

Me: I’ve not heard of that company. What are they?

Lewis: Monsanto… It started as a pharmaceutical company and moved into the food business. If you search around the web on the topic of genetically modified foods you’ll find that there is a huge international movement against the genetic engineering of various foods that is being spearheaded by companies in America and Canada, but is being fiercely resisted by people in Europe. And even sort of shadowier is a company called “Cargill”, which is fundamentally a grain transportation company. But these companies are so big and sophisticated that they sell farmers seed and fertilizer and buy back their crops, transport them, and move grain and food around the world in such a way to try to change the diet of whole continents. To make Asia, for instance, more dependant on wheat than it is on rice, so that they’d have to import instead of depend on their own basic staples.

Anyway. They do things like make a new genetically modified seed that is resistant to the pesticides that they sell. So you can spray your crops with this incredibly intense pesticide called “Roundup”. But the seeds that you planted, which you bought from the same company that you buy the pesticides from, are the only things within miles that are resistant to this particular chemical.

Me: Sounds like a universal “Monopoly” game.

Lewis: It is getting close to that. And it is all engineered for the company’s profit over the actual well being of the farmers and the population. Because, of course, nobody knows what the long-term health effects could be of screwing with the genetic makeup of food.
Anyway, this is a story that has really been obsessing me for a long time; I really wanted to do a debate about it. But, of course, those companies have no interest in doing debates! They have no interest in facing their foes; like the Council of Canadians or the groups that are concerned about food safety. So, occasionally, they’ll do a one-on-one interview in the news with one reporter where they know that they’ll get their little 30-second sound byte defending their practices. They never actually have to face their enemies. So, we just couldn’t find anyone from any of these companies or any of the industry groups who would represent and lobby for the value of genetically modifying food. So finally we found this one guy who was a farmer who said he was really positive about these things like the hormone that they put in cows that makes them make more milk, and the genetically modified seeds and stuff. So we had him on the show, and we had a couple of people who were really alarmed about the trend. I did my intro where I was just bashing the idea.

But it turns out this farmer was a very sour and resentful person. So he didn’t say much, and was visibly pissed off at these guys who were railing about genetically modified food. So I sort of had to balance out the debate by giving him as much time as I could, and asking him questions by trying to interpret his responses back to the other side, to keep some semblance of a fair debate. I was trying to make sure that both sides got their fair share of airtime, even though I clearly disagreed with his.

Someone wrote us an email saying, “I’m really disgusted and scared by this genetically modified food thing, and was really disturbed to see that your host completely agreed with and defended the farmer who was defending it, and didn’t give as much time to the other side, and it was such a biased debate.”

I was completely misinterpreted in my attempts to be fair, and in the human situation, defending this guy who was doing such a poor job of defending his side.

The same day, we got an email from an environmental activist who said, “I can’t believe that you said that guy was a farmer! He gets all his money from Monsanto. He’s nothing but a mouthpiece for the company, and you completely bought their spin by bringing in a, quote, “typical farmer”. He’s paid to have this opinion. You were hoodwinked.” So, sometimes I get accidentally misinterpreted, but I don’t mind. I have an opportunity to say what I think, and that’s my role on the show.

Me: On The New Music, did you have that kind of freedom?

Lewis: Well… In some ways more and some ways less. The dilemmas associated with doing Music Journalism are a lot heavier than doing a debate show. In music journalism, whether you like it or not, you just end up helping the publicity mill. You don’t get a chance to go to New Orleans just because Much Music feels like spending 5000 dollars to send you. You go to New Orleans because Universal records wants to promote the new Lenny Kravitz album, and they’ve got Lenny Kravitz doing interviews in New Orleans. So whenever we traveled on record company’s money, we always made a point of doing something else in the city that we went to, trying to uncover some genuinely new music.

Me : Kinda like TV Frames?

Lewis: Kinda like TV Frames.

Me: I thought that was a really cool show

Lewis : That was the coolest gig ever, and if Jennifer Morton hadn’t cornered the market on that, that’s exactly what I would’ve wanted to do. Just traveling around doing “slice of life” journalism in different places around the world. But there was a show that didn’t have a very corporate reason for existing. It wasn’t a part of the game of juggling the demands of various record companies and the commercial priorities of Much Music. So it never had that much commercial appeal. And it had absolutely no constraints on it, except where she wanted to go and what she wanted to do.

Me: After watching TV Frames: Beirut, and hearing about riots or bombings in that part of the world, I would get depressed…

Lewis: Yeah. I think that did what television does best, which is make you feel like you’ve been there. But yeah, music journalism did have a lot of constraints, because I have a determinately anti-corporate point of view. And that was frustrating.

Me: When was the first moment that you ever considered going into journalism as a career?

Lewis: Well, I think that, like a lot of people in the field of journalism, I didn’t fantasize as a kid about being a journalist. I absolutely fell into it.

Me: So, you didn’t look at Clark Kent and go, “Oooooh! I want to be him!”

Lewis: No, definitely not! I was all Spiderman over Superman, anyway.

I went for a trip after university in a typical trip around the world, and I found myself in Nepal for a few months… It’s a very beautiful country which in the south is filled with tropical valleys, which in the north turn into the Himalayas, which are the highest mountains in the world. A lot of people go trekking into the mountains there.

And I had an accident there. While I was trekking around in the mountains I had a really bad fall, precipitated exclusively by my own stupidity and youthful arrogance. It took me like a week to get home. I had smashed my leg to smithereens and I was very lucky not to die in a number of different ways. When I got home and learned to walk again, I decided that I wanted to go back to school, but I didn’t want to do purely abstract stuff. Like Literature and Philosophy, my undergrads. I thought, “Well, I wanna go back to school, but I want to take something that has practical application.” I applied to a bunch of journalism schools. And while I was waiting for the six months to decide whether or not I was gonna get in, I thought, “Rather than going to grad school, this is probably something I can learn on the job.” So I got out and started working my connections to try to get a job in journalism. Basically, because I had to move back home to my parents house, which was bugging the shit out of me! And I was learning to walk again, which took me, like, six months, and I was just going out of my mind. I needed money! And I needed to get out of the house. So I ended up getting a volunteer spot at CityTV, and one of their news writers just happened to quit five minutes after I walked in the door, and I got a chance at the job and I got it. It was just a combination of good luck, good timing —

Me : — Fate –?

Lewis : — and knowing somebody, which is exactly the way you always end up getting a job. And from there, one thing led to another, and eventually I was a news writer working on weekends.

And I had an idea. I always thought that “Speakers Corner” was such a cool thing. And I had an idea that I wanted to do political satire with my guitar. I told the news director that I wanted to be a kind of rock-n-roll Nancy White; she used to do political satire on CBC radio, but it was mostly piano, with a kind of chanteuse style. So I kind of wanted to do that with Rock-and-roll sensibilities. So I told him and he just laughed. Because television producers are so stupid. They don’t understand anything until they can see it on tape… You spin a great idea, and they look at you blankly.

Me (sotto voce): “Well, that’s really not good for our target market!”

Lewis : Right! Exactly. If you bring something in that is obviously cool and appealing, and just show it to them, sometimes they get it.

So that kinda worked for me. I dropped into Speakers Corner, threw in my loonie, and I’d written a couple of songs — making sure that they were exactly one minute long. And I went down into the basement of the station and got one of the techies to give me the tape that I had just recorded on. I showed it to the news director and he laughed, and put them on Breakfast Television.

So I was writing two songs a week. And I had all this material, because of course (as a news writer) I was totally immersed in the news! They were playing them on Breakfast Television in the mornings, and I went in and demanded that I not spend my own loonies. He laughed and started paying me about 25 bucks a song. So I was making 50 bucks a week with my music, along with being a news writer. And I was pretty thrilled with that.

And then they suggested that I try being a reporter, and I just laughed at them, because I thought, “Give up this freedom for the pretense of objectivity? Not in your life! Forget it! What a drag! I’ve got everything right now!” About six months later, the news director pulled me into his office again and said, “Hey, nobody’s ever turned down a reporter audition before. Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” And I thought about that, and — I wasn’t sure that I knew what I was doing (laugh).

Then I did the audition, they put me on the air, and I was a news reporter for a few years.

Me: Then you moved onto The New Music, and now — Counterspin!

Lewis: Right. Ironically, I did have to do that neutral “one the one hand, on the other hand” kind of journalism for a few years. But eventually, I had sort of re-earned the right to be a full human being on camera instead of being a kind of robot. Y’know — it worked out really well for me.

Me: We appreciate it, too.

Lewis: (laughing) Thanks a lot!

Me: Who is the one person, dead or alive, that you would like / have liked to interview?

Lewis : Tom Waits… He’s kind of the reptilian and surreal inverted lounge style. He started in the late seventies. The reason I’d want to interview him is — Have you ever read the book, “The Sword and the Stone“?

Me: Nope.

Lewis: It’s a version of the Arthurian legend by a man named TH White. It’s a book I read as a kid, and it blew my mind. It basically told the story of Arthur, somewhat from Merlin’s point of view. Or maybe Merlin the Magician was just a character in the book. I think it was the first Arthurian tale that described in detail the legendary belief that Merlin lived his life backwards — that he was born as an old man… [and] as he goes along until he sort of disappears into infancy.

Tom Waits’s first album was called Closing Time in the seventies, and his first album was like, a collection of truck driver ballads. Totally straight, and very conventional AM radio songwriting. And his albums have gotten weirder and weirder as he’s aged. Which is the absolute opposite of people who do their most avant-garde work at the beginning of their career, as they get more and more commercial or more and more “safe”. He seemed to be going in the complete opposite direction than most artists. His albums were more and more bizarre as he went on. I found that so fascinating! His interviews are totally insane. He never answers a question with a straight answer. He tells long surreal stories that have nothing to do with what you just asked.

Most people try to make him make sense, and I just know that if you just went with it, just got totally disjunctive and surreal with him, it could turn into something amazing.

Me : Leonard Cohen seemed kinda like that.

Lewis: (snickering) Well — yeah. he definitely goes where he wants to with an answer! And, in a way, that’s true. I remember one time during my interview I was trying to push him on the connection in his work on the topic of sex an religion. For so many years, he would write about sex as if it were a religion. They were so mixed up.

So, when I asked him that question, he sort of flattered me and complimented me and said, “That’s a very perceptive way of putting it”, and then sort of went on to something else about religion.

I was like, “Okay, that was a skillful kind of dodge. Answer the question! Do you see sex as a kind of religion?” And he said, “Well, you know, I don’t like talking about matters that I consider private, but since you’re pressing me on this in a very dignified and decent way, I’ll say –” And then the cameraman said, “Shit,” as the tape runs out. And he says, “Well! We’ll save that for another time!” The moment slipped away.

Me : (laughing) Jeez.

Lewis : I kind of wonder whether or not he had a magical power over the technology.

[At this point there is a gap in the record, where I double-check that my own tape recorder is operating properly.]

Me: I’ve heard that some journalists try to develop a rapport with their subjects before they start the interview. What kinds of pre-interview rituals do you go through, if any?

Lewis : [O]n Counterspin, because it is a debate show and we encourage people to really argue, we discourage people from the sort of “mock outrage” and acting all controversial that you see on a lot of talk shows.

Me: Or the debate for Ontario premier.

Lewis : Or for leaders debates, exactly. What I try to do is, I try to establish the tone of the show in the few minutes that I have before the show when we can all talk to each other. And because we are a national show we almost always have someone on satellite in other cities. Sometimes I only have about a minute and a half, or two, when all the satellite technicalities have been worked out, and I can actually get all the guests talking to each other. So, I have a little warm-up ritual that I do with them. I get those guests on satellite to reach behind them and take one of those fake looking books of the shelf and throw it at the camera. And, sometimes they think I’m serious, and then they realize that I’m joking, and then they realize that there’s a sense of humor about television itself.

Then, I remind them that the way that the show usually works is that I ask the first question and people sort of go around in turn. Gradually, as a real human conversation starts to break out, and people forget they are on television because they are so engaged in the subject, we will be interrupted by a commercial. Even though I warn them about it at the beginning of the show, it absolutely happens every single night.

Me : I haven’t noticed this: Is Counterspin live?

Lewis : Absolutely live, all the time. It adds an extra kind of energy.

Me : That pre-show ritual must work pretty well, because — I watched one episode, and noticed that everyone was laughing. They all represented different parties, and were in a roundtable discussion, but they were all joking with each other. It was really something.

Lewis : There’s a value in trying to encourage people not to take themselves too seriously, and recognize where they relate as well as where they differ. I think that serves the conversation well, because people are more honest. They’re not so self-important. And I really like that.

Me : Me too. I think a lot of people do.

— What is the worst part of your job?

Lewis : The worst part of my job is the relentlessness. Doing four nights a week live for forty weeks is a tremendous grind. Because the mandate of our show is to react to whatever the breaking story of the day is, we frequently throw out all the work that we’ve put into a show at four o’clock in the afternoon because something else is exploding, and we just switch topics on the fly. The level of stress and intensity certainly dwarfs anything that I’ve ever experienced before.

AND the fact that it is live. AND the fact that it is a debate show, so it’s not enough just to get people who are smart and have a few good things to say, to represent the various points of view on an issue. AND finding those people across the country. AND trying to have some gender representation, some cultural representation, geographic representation, so it isnít always just a bunch of old white guys. It’s a tremendous amount to accomplish every single day, so I don’t think I can stand this pace for very long. I’m certainly learning a tremendous amount on every conceivable subject!

Me : What is the best part of your job?

Lewis : The best part of my job is the relentlessness. The momentum. The fact that I’m absolutely immersed in the news all the time, constantly having to learn about, and keep up on, all of the debates going on in our culture simultaneously. Not since university have I been so intellectually challenged. And there is a total high in being immersed in so much information.

The fact that it is every day really gives you the opportunity to have the debates that people are actually having around the dinner tables, and in bars, and in restaurants, while they are actually happening in response to the day’s news; to not have to wait until your weekly slot comes along to discuss something that people have already stop talking about. To really be in the flow of this new saturated society, and not to be just giving the news, but to be having the underlying arguments about the core moral, intellectual and philosophical issues that are underneath the news stories. That is incredibly exciting.
But itís a double-edged sword; very exhausting!

Me : Last question! Do you ever think that you’ll stray into producing shows full-time, and if so, why?

Lewis : Well — ironically, I’ve been doing that all along. Partly because of the unique culture of CityTV, which I think is part “rampant exploitation” and part “incredible creative opportunity”. Everybody does everything at City. So, in more traditional broadcasting, the process of doing a finished story will be divided up among many different people. One person who does research, one person who conceives the story and established lines of questioning and supervises the edit, one person who takes all that information into an interview or series of interviews and puts their own spin on it (but essentially only asks questions that someone has already though of), one person who thinks only the visual aspects of the program. At City, you have one camera operator who also does the lighting and the audio, you have one reporter who is also the researcher, the producer, the person who supervises the edits, and the person who controls the content and style of a piece. You have to do six jobs at once. I’ve always produced everything that I did, from The New Music stories to Too Much for Much political coverage, I always produced everything that I was involved in. In the political stuff, I had a partner in crime named Matt Zimble; we sort of dreamed up everything together. We would write the bits, supervise the edits, and just did everything ourselves.

Me : Was he involved in the “Smokes and Booze” special?

Lewis : No, that one was all mine. That was a labour of love.

No man is a one-man-band, really. The original kernel of the idea for the Smokes and Booze special I came up with with my wife who is a writer [Naomi Klein], who is interested in sponsorship and is writing a book about it. I should be careful about taking too much credit!

As producing goes, I’ve always produced everything I’ve been involved in, and on Counterspin, a daily human debate show, there’s just no way that anyone could book four guests a night as well as host the show. So now I have a researcher, four chase producers, and a couple of other producers who supervise the show. But, I still regularly suggest topics, regularly suggest guests, I’m intimately involved in the booking of the show, the devising of the questions, and every part of the show, up until and including whatever happens on air when we just wing it.

So, producing to me is by far the more important element in television. I think a lot of people assume that on air people are just the faces who read a script, and a lot of them are. But to me, the actual power and creativity in television is all about having an idea for a television show, having an idea in your head and being able to realize that on the screen, days or weeks or months later. Having a sort of creative vision and being able to articulate that, is the real fun and constructive part of television; and that is in the producing. So hosting it is kind of an extra bonus and an extra burden. But frequently because it is such an on-air driven culture, if you are a host or on-air person who truly takes an active interest in the content, people are always amazed that you would want to be that involved. They are always very open to it, because it makes for a much better show; being totally immersed in the show, not just putting it on like a suit jacket.

So I sort of used the on-air thing in order to have even more input into any given story.
Itís kind of tempting to just be a producer. Iíve never done it, but I imagine if I could just concentrate on the show, and not be all stressed out about the performance, not having to go on air at the end of this crazy process, maybe it would be liberating.

…[But] For better or worse, I have evolved into this sort of strange animal of host/producer. I just don’t know anything else.