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Philosophy matters, that’s why it’s important

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My first moral philosophy tutorial was one of the most humbling experiences of my young life. I knew, or at least thought, that I had some well thought out liberal opinions and was ready to fight for moderation and understanding against bigotry and hatred. But it only took about ten minutes (if that) for my tutor to demonstrate that my views on everything from abortion to euthanasia were simply the echoes of my mother’s. As I said, humbling.

We all do it I imagine, echo the opinions of our elders and betters. Whether you’re a vociferous Guardian reader, or a Daily Mail sensationalist, whether it is mum or dad’s opinion or your older sibling’s. Philosophy taught me my first lesson: question the basis of your own opinions before you parade them out as doctrine.

That was why I was so pleased to see Russ Thorne’s piece defending philosophy degrees in the Independent. Finally some appreciation for the discipline that I love and respect so highly, after years of getting a hard time.

When admitting they study philosophy, the first question asked is usually: so what are you going to do with that then? An innocent enough question that hides undertones of condescension. It implies that studying philosophy can lead to nothing useful in or of itself.

I had idea what I wanted to do with philosophy, I just enjoyed it. The reading was (usually) very engaging, the debates in class went from heated to mind boggling, and the essays were a challenge. But the question continued bugged me.

Those lucky enough to study vocational disciplines, or with a career mind already, seem to think they have the right to give the humble philosophy student a hard time. They accuse you of just spending your time thinking, or of doing nothing useful. They are just as happy to parade their opinions out over a pint or a coffee.

However, the majority of opinions that are spouted about everything from the environment to politics haven’t been explored in any detail and are therefore mostly platitudes, rehashing what has been told to them by parents, lecturers or the newspapers.

This is why one of the most important lessons of philosophy is not to take those platitudes as fact. That is why philosophy is important.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig describes philosophising as walking in the hills. Anyone can leave the village in the valley and take a little sojourn through the hills of thought. There are a lot of well walked paths up there, that philosophers of bygone days have tread, and their students and acolytes have traversed after them, winding into the mountains of thought.

The valley is an analogy for our family, our culture and our society. It represents the preconceived opinions of the day, the platitudes. One who lives in the valley will take red as blue and blue as red if everyone tells them so. It is easy to live within the valley and not stray outside because everyone agrees with you.

Discussions over coffee or a glass of wine represent the walks in the foothills. You can follow Plato’s path, or Marx’s, arguing over the merits of their journeys and what the discovered. This is as far as many of us go.

But day-trippers should stop and look up. For above the well worn paths in the foothills, there are the mountains, which have only a few paths through them, for not many have ventured beyond the foothills.

This was why philosophy was so humbling as both a subject and a discipline. To further Pirsig’s analogy, the foothills that have been so well trampled can be understood as other subjects, chemistry, physics, psychology. Before these subjects existed there was only the questions: what is the world made of? How does the universe work? What makes human-beings tic? The ancient philosophers would have seen the foothills as mountains, there were no paths there, and it would have been both scary and novel to escape the valley of society and tread new paths. But after years of people following the routes, the questions have been replaced by answers, which are claimed by other disciplines. What matter is made of is answered by chemistry, what forces control the universe is the domain of physics, and explaining what makes humans do what they do is psychology.

It is testament to the wanderings of the greatest minds in history that we have these answers, but the cost has been the question. I think every question is philosophical, and from this it would imply that philosophy is the art of questioning. While the answers are now left to the various disciplines spawned from philosophical enquiry, the soul of the questioner is the soul of the philosopher, and this is why philosophy remains important.

To not ask questions because you assume you know the answer is at best ignorant and at worst arrogant. A lot of people in the valley take their opinions for granted, because they like them. If I had an unwanted pregnancy I’d want to abort it, so I am pro-abortion. But the philosopher explores their own opinions, and those of others, like Socrates, to find the justification that doesn’t rest on the comfort those opinions provide.

We are lucky to live in a culture where we have so many answers, but we should not let this make us complacent. If we do, like in the US, we get creationists, who take comfort in their opinions, yet make no effort to delve into the absurdity that the world was created only 9,000 years ago. We need questioners, to keep ideas fresh and stop them stagnating, and that means we continue to need philosophy.

And, as I learned long ago, philosophy teaches you to be humble before both your own and the opinions of others.

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My first week as a journalist – work experience day 2 – Vox Pop

My second day at the South Wales Argus proved to be an exhausting experience. But becoming a journalist has always been a dream of mine, and now that I am getting closer, it will take a lot more than exhaustion to stop me…

The 6am starts really don’t help much, catching two trains to Newport, which takes an hour and a half, then a brisk 30 minute walk from the train station to their offices. The morning heat this week has been extraordinary, and I need a quick fag break before I go to cool off, even at 8:30 in the morning. This is the one thing I’m really not used to, a shirt and tie everyday. When you sweat a little in a shirt it really shows, and suit trousers stick to your legs – maybe a bus would be more convenient, but I would arrive 40 minutes early, and, as I’m about to embark upon my NCTJ (National Certificate of Trained Journalism) next month I need to save my pennies.

The morning started like it always does, reading yesterdays paper, then going over today’s broadsheets to see what’s been happening. The office starts to buzz as reporters get calls and emails detailing the comings-and-goings of the day, but because I’m only work experience and there’s no internet at my computers, I have to wait to be told my task.

The no internet really irritates me. I can’t check the news online, I can’t tweet, and I can’t do very much research when it comes to writing my pieces. There is, admittedly, one computer with full access (the rest have ethernet), but it is usually busy. You’d think, with the ‘Arab Spring’ being orchestrated via Twitter, and the amount of trouble some people have been in for internet libel, that it would be readily available in a news office? Personally, I find a lot of my comment articles from Twitter posts, people recommending me pieces that are well written or thought-provoking, so being cut off is a little unsettling, and makes life very quiet.

After moving from the papers to my textbook, trying to fit in a bit of early reading about current affairs for my looming course, I am approached with my task for the day – to go out and do a vox pop. This, I learned (uninitiated as I am), is when you go out into the local streets and pick people’s brains for short interviews, like what do you think about x? Why? Etc. My topic was to find out about people’s favourite superheroes as part of a piece concerning the recent avalanche of superhero movies like the Mighty Thor, Green Lantern and Captain America.

Walking into town and starting to try and get people to answer I realised this wasn’t going to be as easy as I thought. I have been charity fundraising for a year over the phone now, and, because I am quite successful at it, I thought getting people to answer a few questions would be a doddle. “I’ll back in an hour or two,” I confidently declared as I left, but how wrong I was…

Firstly, due to my subject matter, people of the older orientation simply weren’t interested. Every time I eventually got one to stop and agree to give me a minute for the Argus, as soon as I asked who’s your favourite superhero, they said something like, “I don’t know these things any more love,” or “Not interested son.” I very quickly understood that, predominately, my audience was male, 18-30. But, because I was new, I really wanted to get a good variety of demographics into my interviews. I managed to get a few girls and their boyfriends to answer the questions and was growing in confidence until the second problem arose: no one wanted their photo taken!

Aaaargh! I had been told that we needed ten interviews, all with names, ages and an image. But this was tricky, because some people didn’t want to give their full name (“call me Mr Smith”), but mostly they refused to be photographed. And, obviously of course, due to my subject matter, you could rarely appeal to anyone’s vanity (“do you want your photo in the paper”) because if they were girls they didn’t know any superheroes.

The last problem I had, with the public at least, was when I found a true virtuoso of comics. When I thought I’d hit the jackpot, kicked off a wee rapport, as soon as I asked, “So, who’s your favourite superhero then?” I got either consternation of indignation from them. “I couldn’t possibly choose!” or, “They’re all great, aren’t they?” with that challenging question thrown in at the end.

After hree hours of this, my final, and most painful problem kicked in – my smart shoes are old and decrepit. Not only were my legs hurting because I don’t usually spend so long in one go on my feet (remember to include my half hour walk from the station to work, then back again), but I was developing some fantastic blisters on every inch of my feet.

Limping on, and after four hours, with only eight out of the ten interviews and photos I needed, I retreated back to the office to write up my findings. Another half hour back down the road…

I’ve got to say that they seemed very happy with my work, which cheered me up a little, after I sat down of course. I wrote up the short interviews in 15 or 20 minutes (most of the answers to ‘why are they your favourite hero?’ were, “Because they’re cool, aren’t they…”), and was let off early at 4:15. Luckily, because I knew I would have a bit, but not a lot, of walking to do, I had a spare set of shoes in my bag – which I’d left in the office. This made the walk home more bearable on my feet, but the acid was flowing through my legs and getting on the train and sitting down was oh so pleasurable. Not as pleasurable as finally getting home and into a nice warm bath though.

All things considered, I think I was humbled today. I thought a vox pop would be easy, I was wrong. I thought my shoes would hold up, but I was mistaken. Both of these lessons have been taken to heart, and my one biggest resolution at the moment is, at the first available time, to buy some new shoes if work experience and smart wear are going to become a larger part of my life.

Categories: Comment, Personal, Rants Tags: , ,

My first week as a journalist – work experience day 1 – Court

It was with mixed emotions that I began my first week of work experience at a newspaper. Those who have read my blog a little will know that I have occasionally written for local websites and magazines, but a regional newspaper was a massive step up for me, so naturally I was very excited. This excitement I have to admit was tainted slightly by the fact I had to get up at 6am on a Monday morning, something totally unheard of of for me unless I’ve been going on holiday. The reason for this is that for my first experience of newspaper journalism I had to travel to Newport, South Wales, for a week at the South Wales Argus, the first newspaper which had work experience slots within an hours travel from Bristol.

After the journey however, I now know that although it only takes 40 minutes by train from Bristol Temple Meads station, my total daily commute would be a lot longer. When you include getting to Temple Meads from Montpelier, then waiting for my connection and finally the walk from the station to the newsroom, the journey time was approximately two hours from leaving my front door! But for a taste of professional journalism I was willing to make the sacrifice.

On getting there, signing in, being allocated a desk etc. etc. I was told that I would be accompanying Chris to court for a series of verdicts that were due out that day, one in a very big case involving the fraud of an eighty-year-old lady of over £50,000! So here it was, an hour in and I was already on my way to court.

I have been warned about the ambivalence of court reporting before and knew that it wasn’t all going to be fun and games. Although some cases are bound to be very interesting, informing an observer about the various felonies these people have committed, there are also long stretches of sentencing, barristers droning on in legelspeak, feedback from the jury, and all the tiny minutiae of courtroom etiquette that have to be adhered to that are not generally shown in films or on TV.

The first of my illusions to be shattered was that court is a well-ordered place. The judge, Stephen Hopkins QC, for the main trial, The Courtney Case as the Argus were reporting it, was over half an hour late, because, and I quote, “no one had told him he was expected in court this morning at 10am!” So it was late starting to begin with, but we were optimistic for a verdict today because the jury had been out since Friday.

Proceedings were further delayed however, when the judge admitted that one of the case he was meant to be overseeing had been transferred to Cardiff without him knowing, and the one he was expected to be doing couldn’t move forward because he hadn’t received the relevant paperwork! This resulted in four child witnesses (under 16s) having to be sent home for the day. At a time when the government is going on about cutting budgets, maybe they should think about how much money would be saved through efficiency, rather than austerity?

Through reading the previous cutting about the Courtney case, I knew that the couple, Jacqueline and Stephen Courtney, 49 and 52 respectively, were accused of fraud. Whilst posing as pensioner Marion Edna Holland’s carers, they were reported to have not given her change from her grocery and utilities funds, written themselves cheques and then managed to get her to sign over a large amount of shares, the total coming in at over £54,000. After a quick recap, the judge sent the jury off again to deliberate, and I followed Chris through the other courtroom to listen to the sentences as they were being given out. If the jury couldn’t reach a verdict today, Chris informed me that they would find one of the other cases to highlight for tomorrows edition.

I have to admit that at times I was nearly falling asleep. QCs, barristers and judges do tend to haver a wee bit (haver, if you’re not Scottish or familiar with the Proclaimers classic, ‘100 Miles’ simply means ‘to babble’). If you can sit through them discussing ‘personal abode burglary’ and such like you finally get to the really juicy part, the sentencing. This is where the judge gives his verdict, but of course he likes to give the waiting press a few juicy comments, and it is during this two or three minute finale that most of the quotes used in news reports seem to come from.

After a quick break for lunch, Chris went back to Court 2, while I went to speak to the Clerk of the Court in Court 3 about when the Courtney verdict might be due. As I walked in the jury was being crocodile marched into the courtroom, ready to give judgement. This resulted in me dashing like a madman to find Chris, so we could hear the verdict and hopefully the judges sentence.

As part of the review of the case, I had heard the judge run through the original police interview with Mrs Holland – a harrowing experience. She stated that she had thought the two accused were her friends, trusted them, and it was clear from her statement and the questions asked (sometimes asked repeatedly due to her bad hearing) that she was a woman who was on the edge of a mental collapse (a police source later admitted that she now has dementia, although I might have guessed from the transcript). It was with silence that they were found guilty, although I partly expected a round of applause, but I know now that this isn’t the done thing in court. The judge did, say during his sentencing them to four years each, that he felt the jury had made the right decision – so it seems he felt they were guilty as hell! Whatever this says about judicial impartiality, I felt they were too! His crowning comment was “This is the most appalling abuse of an elderly lady. The only true words you spoke throughout the trial were about the substantial effect on her,” followed by “I have sat as a judge for over 20 years in south Wales and before that was a barrister for 13 years. In all that time, you are amongst the most appalling people I have ever met.” As Lister from Red Dwarf would say, “Brutal!”

This was my first experience of justice in the UK, and all told I think it went as well as can be expected. As it stands, I feel a lot could be done to make court more efficient, although without a deeper understanding of the procedures I can’t offer much feedback. Maybe actually letting the judges know what they are meant to be presiding over and making sure everyone has the same paperwork would be a start? Perhaps marching the jury back and forward every time they have a query is a bit senseless and wastes a lot of time? But, without more observation I appreciate this latter is an area where impartiality must be sacrificed for efficient. What is clear is that a lot of crime goes on, even in a small town like Newport, with a full days schedule of sentencing, hearings and verdicts. What I discovered is unusual, and breaks from TV tradition is that these three parts are all distinct. Over the course of a few weeks you get the hearing, then a few weeks later the jury’s verdict is read, then sentencing takes place a few weeks after that. TV gives us the impression it all happens quite quickly, but in fact, from start to finish the whole process can take months. Chris admitted that to witness a sentencing on the day of the jury’s verdict is very unusual, so maybe it was just my lucky day? And if you include any appeal or reparation process involved you can add a month or so to these figures as well. All in all, I will leave further comment until I am a more experienced court reporter.

After getting and writing a couple of picture stories (which today I had the pleasure to see in print!), I got off about 4.55pm and caught my train home – the first bend of my massive learning curve to becoming a journalist myself. Looking forward to what tomorrow will bring…

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