On October 2013, in an interview between Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman, I saw one discourse trying to dominate another, and attempt to exclude it when this failed. Brand had been offered the role of guest editor for the political magazine New Statesman. For Paxman, someone who had never voted in an election lacked the legitimacy to adopt a position of authority in the political media landscape. Paxman seemed to be suggesting that one needs to participate in the current system for their comments to be taken seriously: one has to be inside the box to describe its dimensions. Right from the start, then, this could be seen as a matter of power, with one discourse being dismissed by another through appeals to appropriate manner, questions of legitimacy, ridicule, and ad-hominem. For this post, I’d like to look at some of the subtle ways in which discourse and power functioned within this interview. While it is not the only route I could take, I’ll be treating Paxman as the ‘legitimate force’, in that he is to a greater extent representing the system currently in place, which Brand is critiquing, in terms of profession, education, and his role as interviewer. The point of this is to demonstrate how different discourses and the conditions for discussion they lay down can influence how we interact with people, arguments, and their perceived effects.
First I’ll deal with an attitude I’ve come across countless times, represented here in Paxman’s attempt to trivialise Brand’s criticisms based on the fact that they weren’t followed with specific suggestions. As though social or political criticism is only worth voicing if it’s coupled with a potential solution. To take such an attitude is to discourage acknowledging the world around us. If we were limited to only ever acknowledging faults in the current system on the condition that we have a suggestion in mind, critical discussion would be stifled. To get to the point where one can offer the solution to a complex social problem, one usually has to acknowledge it, discuss it, and critically reflect on it. I can’t comment on the extent to which Brand had done these things, but the mere fact that he hasn’t come up with a solution is not a fair reason to cut off his pointing finger. What’s more, why does it have to be the person expressing whatever issue that comes up with whatever solution? To argue for this condition would be to treat people as private agents alone in a solitary system, rather than collaborative and conflicting communicative social critters.
The next point is to do with the classism that pervades the discussion. First, Brand made an excellent sociological assertion regarding how different people feel comfortable in different environments. This is to suppose that one is more likely to feel welcome in an environment similar in design to that which they’ve grown up in. Brand used the example of buildings of centralised political activity being designed in a similar manner to Cambridge University. This kind of environment would be very familiar to a certain sort, and quite alien to others (the sheer majority of others, in fact). The point Brand was getting at here is that this can lead to a sense that the physical places associated with the government, which (in Brand’s opinion) should represent the people, can have something of a ‘you don’t belong here’ effect on those intended to participate in the democratic process.
The third point is linked to class in a far more subtle way. You can catch a glimpse of it in criticisms that Brand was ‘dancing around a point’, or that his manner was ‘not constructive’. This criticism requires a certain amount of selective listening, as it is clear that Brand makes many points quite clearly (the one in the last paragraph being a prime example). It thus becomes a matter of making the ‘wrong points’ – there is a particular way to discuss politics, and attempts to do so in a different manner is not proper. Don’t make a point about the buildings political debate take place in; make a point about the debates. Don’t make a point about how a certain class perceives the political process; make a point about a policy. These are all subtle though potent ways to limit discussion and can therefore be seen as instances of one discourse setting the parameters for what counts as legitimate. This is most evident in Brand’s humour and broad strokes, which may well have clicked more with many viewers who usually glaze over such discussions, due to lack of exposure to such discourses, differences in education, or whatever other reasons. Of course, these are the wrong viewers, and appealing to them counts as a strike.
The fourth point has to do with the ‘effects’ of the interview, and other ‘awareness raising’ sensations like it. One of the more prominent criticisms I hear regarding these sensations is that at the end of the day they don’t actually do anything. Brand may well have been charming, and raised some points worth talking about, but in a month or two people will have forgotten about it and moved on. I find that this assertion doesn’t take into account the more subtle and far reaching effects that such events can have. To demonstrate this, I’ll use the star attraction of the examples line up: Occupy Wall Street.
I remember the excitement a lot of people were expressing when Occupy Wall Street was happening. Now, with the 99% still being the same old 99%, there is a sense that not much has changed, the ‘potential revolution’ flopped, and disillusionment has set in. But consider this: before Occupy Wall Street, much of the younger generations did not have a relatable attempted ‘revolution’ in their lived history. Now they do. Likewise, many people didn’t have something similar to the ‘look at the failure of X revolution’ in their lived history. Now they do. They have a massive mobilisation of people for social change to refer to, and while it failed and resulted in perhaps a deeper sense of hopelessness in many, it brought such events out of the realm of parental anecdotes from days before their birth and into the modern world. The discussions regarding class which had come close to flat lining with the so called Generation-Y were revitalised with the idea of the 99%. Moreover, I have witnessed how the ‘failure of Occupy Wall Street’ reference has made many discussions become that much more critical – the ‘revolution is easy’ attitude is harder to get away with now thanks to a real world occurrence from recent memory. Thus, while on the face of things, Occupy Wall Street was forgotten by many within a few months, its contribution to how we think and communicate about the society we live in will likely last for years to come. I will not yet speculate on whatever lasting effects the interview being discussed will have (it’s early and they’re subtle), but I encourage the use of the sociological gaze before taking the ‘pointlessness’ of such events for granted.
For my final point I’d like to briefly state why I am wary of the word ‘revolution’, which Paxman dropped with: “You want a revolution, don’t you?” This word can just as easily evoke images of thin ice as it can green pastures – which is to say that it is about as far from a neutral word that you can get. I find that its use often involves not mentioning or ignoring the fact that some of the most terrible periods of the last few hundred years have followed revolution. People deplore war as a terrible reality and celebrate revolution as an abstract ideal, without considering the horrors of revolution (over a hundred million deaths following three revolutions alone are dismissed so easily). This is often done by the easy move of placing revolution in a box, far removed from its true to life consequences – all the other revolutions of human history were just ‘done wrong’. Of course, this could just be me trying to trivialise the new wave of political idealism by appealing to history – though perhaps I’m right in doing so.