Russell Brand’s interview on Newsnight with Jeremy Paxman last week has caused quite a stir. His comments have struck a chord with many but also unleashed a tidal wave of vitriol and criticism across the media and internet, not least from many of my own friends. Personally I enjoyed his musings. I thought he was passionate, funny and articulate, however many others don’t seem to share this view. So why did the interview cause so much controversy? And what is it about Mr Brand that so many people find so unpalatable? Can it ever be right not to exercise your right to vote? Is it possible to divorce content from source? Can you be simultaneously rich and famous and on the side of the downtrodden? Has he swallowed a thesaurus? And if so why does that get on people’s nerves? I have sought to address some of these questions below.
Criticism no 1: He’s rich and so in no position to lecture us.
It appears that many people cannot accept that Russell Brand can be both a wealthy film star and simultaneously hold radical views on politics, the economy and the environment. Nonsense of course; history is full of examples of the better off championing the underdog: Would Brand’s message have been received more warmly if he was still poor? Unlikely I suspect and we’d probably never had heard it. The vast majority of those who talk to us in the media or who run for political office are wealthier than average Should I dismiss the views of Tony Benn or Barack Obama purely on the basis of their how much money is in their bank accounts? How wealthy an individual is may indeed influence them politically and this therefore should be taken into consideration when judging a speaker’s words. Are they acting purely in their own self- interest? It would be hard to argue that Russell Brand was advocating any kind of action that would in any way improve his own financial situation or position.
Criticism no 2: His message not to vote is immoral
Of course it’s true that many brave people fought for our right to vote in the past but does this mean that voting should be compulsory? Abstaining from voting is both a legal and a moral right. It is not disrespecting those that struggled for this right but a statement of discontent with the choices on offer at that moment in time. It is not an indictment of the principle of democracy, but of the current state of democracy. It is perfectly possible to hold views that are not represented in any of the manifestos and ideologies of any of the mainstream parties. And not voting is a temporary act. Russell Brand didn’t say “never vote”: he simply suggested that people don’t vote for any of the current political parties.
Thirty five per cent of Britons did not vote at the last general election, approximately the same number as voted for the ruling party. We have a choice: we can rave and rant against this with moral indignation or we can choose to listen to what this is telling us about the current state of politics, and try to understand why and how so much of the population feels so disenfranchised.
Not voting does not mean you don’t care either, in fact in my experience many of those who do not vote often care more than those that do vote and it is thinking deeply about the issues involved that has led them to the decision not to vote. I know many people who do not vote but who have pursued change through other means such as protest, activism and support for single-issue campaigns and organisations.
Of course there are other reasons not to vote that I shall not go into here such as safe seats, first past the post, corruption and the ridiculous adversarial stances taken by the major parties purely to serve their own interests and not those of the country.
Criticism no 3: He has no message
A wonderfully funny moment during the interview was when Jeremy Paxman called Russell Brand a “very trivial man” following a comment from Brand about how much he liked Paxman’s new beard. In response to this insult Brand replied “a minute ago you were having a go at me because I want a revolution, now you are calling me trivial”. In fact one of the joys of the interview was watching it swing from the ridiculous to the sublime.
He certainly had a message. In case you missed it, here it is again: the current system of party politics in the UK is not dealing with the major problems that the world and the country are currently facing e.g. environmental damage, corporations avoiding tax and an underclass of impoverished and disenfranchised,. Perhaps when people say he has no message what they really mean is his message is different from theirs.
It’s true that Russell Brand certainly doesn’t have a workable solution to the problems he pointed out but as he said he will leave that up to others cleverer than himself. This seems entirely reasonable to me; it is perfectly acceptable to point out a problem and not to have all the answers yourself. This might be more of an issue if he was running for PM but at this moment in time I don’t think that’s on the cards.
Criticism no 4: He was just promoting his latest tour.
Well firstly that would be his right and hardly a great sin, after all he was invited to speak on Newsnight, although I don’t recall him once mentioning his tour during the entire conversation. The most compelling part of the interview for me was the last few minutes when Russell became really quite angry and passionate about the plight of the poor and the state of society. It was quite clear to me at this point that he was not thinking about promoting his tour whatsoever but was speaking out of a genuine concern for justice and fairness.
Criticism no 5: He has swallowed a thesaurus
Really? That’s your reason for not listening? This is a non-argument. Would you like him to be less articulate? Were there words you didn’t understand? I can fully understand how his peculiar diction, a bizarre concoction of 21st century estuary English and Dickensian wordiness can grate and it does seem that his foppish manner alienates many potential supporters of his message. But make up your mind here: is it what he is saying that’s the problem or how he says it? If it’s how he says it, I find this rather depressing; that people who may hold similar beliefs can be discounted purely because of their affectations.
Criticism no 6: He upset Manuel, has taken drugs and by all accounts had a lot of sex
He has apologised for his BBC podcast mishap, admitted that it was not his finest moment and accepted responsibility for his part in this overblown scandal, led and propagated by an anti-BBC media. This error alone does not invalidate every subsequent thought he has or action he takes. Have you ever made a mistake? Care to be judged on that for the rest of your life? Russell has spoken candidly about his history of drug-taking and reports indicate that he has had sex with a lot of women. Whether you think this behaviour is immoral or perfectly acceptable, it has little bearing on his political views. If he was advocating monogamy I could see that his lifestyle might be relevant.
So look, the only possible reasons for not liking what Russell Brand said are:
That you don’t agree with what his message, that is, you do believe that the government is effectively tacking poverty, doing its best to protect the environment and is taking the right stance on bankers’ bonuses and corporate tax avoidance. And if that’s your view, that’s fine.
Or you agree with the sentiments behind what he said but you don’t like the bit about not voting. If this is the case, taking a positive stance by focusing on what you agree with, rather than the parts you disagree with would seem to be a potentially more useful way forward.
Or you agree with the message but you don’t like the messenger. If you have studied conflict resolution you will know that the first rule is to separate the people from the problem. Focusing on the problem will be productive whereas concentrating on personalities will get you nowhere. Nobody including Russell himself is asking you to like him. He just answered some questions.
Ultimately like the Sachsgate scandal, I suspect that we will all just maintain the positions we previously held, those who liked Brand will continue to do so, those that didn’t will have another reason not to. Confirmation bias is a fascinating concept that describes how we only seek and pay attention to messages that reinforce our current way of thinking and we filter out messages that contradict what we believe. So whatever our views on a particular subject, new information only ever strengthens our existing beliefs,, regardless of the new content. Being open to receiving information without prejudice and being willing to change your mind are both vital to developing as a human being.
If you haven’t seen the video, watch it here: : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3YR4CseY9pk
Update – great to hear Jeremy’s views on Brand and politics!