Artifice is not the same as deceit. The media is full of artifice. Words are edited in print, chopped and put back together in audio and video, not to misrepresent, but simply to provide a smoother, more coherent picture of the ideas being presented.
Most of the time we do not think of any of this as deceitful. But this seems in part to depend on how good our media literary is. For instance, it is standard practice when filming an interview with only one camera to, at the end, record some “noddies”: the interviewer is seen nodding or responding to what the speaker is saying. This is in effect a re-staging of their actual reactions – at the time they are filmed, the interviewer is just looking into space. But some viewers do feel deceived when they discover this.
So where is the line between benign artifice and deceit? I got wondering about this after I received an email from Tom Morris, author of If Aristotle Ran General Motors. He has started a series of “interviews” with philosophers at the Huffington Post and he was on the look out for “interviewees”. You’ll see why I use scare-quotes when you read what his message contained:
If you have an idea for an interview of about 1,000 words or fewer (or up to 1,200 on rare occasion), please email me. Then I ask only that your submission be formatted like the interview you see. Suggest my questions and comments as well as your own, and I’ll edit from there. Please also help me with the formatting time by using this code for your name and mine with each question and answer….
As examples, he has:
Tom: Hi, fellow philosopher! You have a new book out on XYZ.
You: Hi, Tom. Yes indeed.
I wasn’t comfortable with this. Morris was asking people to write “interviews” with themselves, pretending that Morris had set the questions. Morris would then edit them if he didn’t like any bits of them.
Now this is hardly criminal behaviour, but I think that philosophers of all people should be wary about being so brazenly untruthful. I should say that Morris is very open about the process, and clearly doesn’t see this as deceitful. When I raised my concerns to him in an email he said “It’s just a quicker and easier way of providing a forum for the voices of others,” adding “I’ve been very fortunate to have ample public hearing for my work. I’m just wanting to share some of the stage, so to speak. I’m 58 and won’t be doing this forever. I want to encourage others in the academy to ‘get out there’ with more of their work.”
Although I made it clear I was not accusing him of any subterfuge, his response didn’t convince me. I followed up:
For me something doesn’t sit right abut philosophers presenting themselves so falsely. It isn’t an interview. You didn’t ask the questions. It’s just not truthful. It’s not a big deal, perhaps – we’re not talking about major disinformation here. But if Aristotle ran The Huffington Post, no way would he would approve! And I think if Huffington Post readers knew this, some at least wouldn’t like it.
One part of his second reply really didn’t convince:
Of course dialogues written by just one person have a rich tradition in our biz. Plato didn’t mean to trick people, nor did Hume. And these aren’t even written by just one person.
But no one ever thought they were real dialogues. He also wrote:
My understanding is that the philosophers I interview just suggest the questions. That’s how I take what they write to me. If I approve the questions, that amounts to my asking them. If I don’t, I propose a question of my own or a bevy of such questions. The end result, to me, counts as an interview, not just an “interview”.
I want to stress that I do not think Morris is behaving with any malign intent. He said he was happy for me to blog about this and quote from his emails. But I do think he’s mistaken here. The artifice in this case is misleading, whether it is intended to mislead or not. And although this is not an important case – it’s really just a good example of a wider issue – I do think it is important for philosophers to uphold values of truthfulness, even when the stakes are low.
Am I being too puritanical? Or hypocritical? After all, I use artifice when I edit my podcasts and written interviews. At a time where more and more people are using media tools, it is perhaps important that we try to draw some rough lines at least between acceptable and misleading artifice. But where?