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Reed Prof on "Philosophy Talk"

By Kevin Myers on April 19, 2011 10:06 AM

KenTamaraJohn_blog.jpgFor the last several years, listening to OPB radio on Thursday nights at 8 pm has become something of an obsession of mine. Maybe obsession is too strong a word; maybe it's more of a desire. Though, desire is a loaded word that would need a lot of unpacking before it can really explain my relationship to the show. Of course, my definition of desire is also conditional to my understanding of how I'm using it in the context of this given situation. Oh my, now I've stumbled into the theory of meaning, or is it meaning-theory, or semantics, and what's the difference anyway?

Luckily for me, Philosophy Talk hosts Ken Taylor and John Perry (two men, four first names) of Stanford University spend an hour each week explaining conundrums such as mine. The duo tackle philosophical concepts under titles like "Desire," "Money and Morality," and "What are Words Worth" in a way--as they say in the show's introduction--that questions everything but the audience's intelligence.

Which makes Reed poli-sci professor Tamara Metz the perfect guest. Metz is the author of Untying the Knot: Marriage, The State, and the Case for Their Divorce. Metz's book makes a powerful argument that marriage, like religion, should be separate from the state. I joined Tamara at the OPB studios as she talked with Ken and John during the April 14 live studio broadcast... Tamara_Mic_blog.jpg"I think it was the ideal venue for me to introduce my work to a nonacademic audience," says Metz. "The show is a great combination of popular culture and philosophical thought."

As Metz got mic'ed up in the studio, I sat in the control room with the show's producer, J. Ben Manilla, production coordinator, Devon Strolovitch, roving reporter, Caitlin Esch, and 60-second philosopher, Merle Kessler eavesdropping as the on-air folks chatted into live microphones about their choice of grad schools and bemoaned Portland's weather.

The introductory segment is scripted and gets rehearsed moments before the show. The control room was buzzing with the anticipatory energy that accompanies a live performance. The producer didn't like that John used the word "argument" twice in the same sentence and called out to the crew for alternatives. As the production coordinator called out five minutes to air, the engineer realized the show was being broadcast with a ten-second delay and franticly tried to figure out how to avoid dead air when transitioning from the local news.

By contrast, the studio had the feel of strangers arriving at the same time to a dinner party. It was the polite small talk and jovial banter of people becoming acquainted as their mutual friend retreated to the kitchen for drinks and petite tea sandwiches--safe, comfortable, but a little awkward.

Metz feels that she got off to a slow start, but the hosts were able to put her at ease and she built momentum as the show continued. The callers, who were chosen by the quality of both their questions and phone lines, mostly seemed to exhibit an understanding of Metz's argument. Some of the more interesting callers, however, didn't make the air. At one point, the production coordinator hung his head in laughter and said, "The guy on line four is the son of a fundamentalist minister and said, even though he doesn't see eye-to-eye with his dad asked, can't we just give them marriage and move on..."' and there was something about Thanksgiving dinner that I missed.

One caller listed rights and benefits that he and his same-sex partner are denied based on the use of a state-controlled definition of marriage, which evolved into an interesting separate-but-equal exchange.

Near the end of the show, Ken Taylor suggested that Tamara's argument was semantic in nature. "In a way, formally, it is a semantic argument," says Metz. "So in a way Ken was right, in many ways my argument is about words, but his question gave me an opportunity to argue that those words carry a lot of weight. I felt like I was able to argue the meaning behind those words."

Metz's argument goes deeper into the cultural meaning of marriage, and the show gave her an opportunity to point out the ways in which her argument cannot be reduced as an appropriation of a word from a religious to a secular context (Ben, I just used "argument" twice in once sentence). Based on some of the emails Metz has gotten from listeners, she feels that she made her case.

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Keeping looking back to the Philosophy Talk website for audio of the show.