Russell Brand’s interview on BBC’s “Newsnight” on Wednesday was a breath of fresh air for many viewers, as the actor’s unwavering commitment to confronting media’s bullshitting tendencies really shone through.
There were many wonderful moments in their conversation, but one of the most important elements was the power struggle between Paxman and Brand over the legitimacy of political participation, and whether or not voting qualifies an individual for being a credible critic of society. The friction between their perspectives is important, and looking more closely at the mentalities they are each representing, and for what exactly they are arguing on behalf, is crucial. Crucial to understanding the debate rather than simply viewing the interview as a fight between conflicting views.
Paxman tries to undermine Brand, suggesting that since he has not even voted before, he clearly does not have an opinion worth taking seriously. Brand shoots back, “I don’t get my authority from this preexisting paradigm which is quite narrow and only serves a few people … I look elsewhere for alternatives that might be of service to humanity.”
And, just like that, Brand shifts the discussion from supporting the power structure as it exists today, and finding a new way of exploring the potential for future human existence. Despite Paxman’s attempts to move the interview back toward territory that is more comfortable for him to discuss (mainly when traditional democratic procedure is validated), Brand is adamant that their focus should be on human experience rather than the lofty rhetoric of politics as it exists now.
He rejects Paxman’s parameters for the political discussion simply because it fails to recognize the lack of legitimacy rampant in politics.
Brand, of course, is not the first to make these observations. George Carlin’s words are echoed in Brand’s statements, both in their sentiment, and in their “facetious” quality. Brand’s interview reminds us that comedy is often a gateway to moving beyond the empty rhetoric of polite conversation and toward a discussion based on honesty and raw emotion.
As highlighted by Joe Veix, there is a contradiction inherent in Paxman’s argument:
Ultimately Paxman’s argument is voided by its own implicit paradox; to be ostensibly pro-democratic requires that one believes everyone has equal authority to argue a political opinion. To dismiss Brand for being too “facetious” to have a valid opinion is essentially anti-democratic.
See, the problem with Paxman’s argument is that it clings to a logic that is based on an authority that lacks legitimacy.
Earlier in the week I wrote about the Principle of Legitimacy. I feel it’s worth mentioning again, for the sake of Brand’s arguments, that legitimacy in authority is only achieved when it fulfills the following points:
1. People asked to obey authority have to feel that they have a voice.
2. The law has to be predictable.
3. Authority has to be fair.
This is exactly what Brand calls for in his interview with Paxman. He asks for a system in which everyone has a voice, and power is executed in a fair and predictable manner. He refuses to be silenced by Paxman’s attempts to apply the current illegitimate system to his argument.
It would be easy to dismiss Paxman as an agent of The Man and place him in opposition to Brand. What is more productive is looking at him as an agent of the current power structure. He feels that the only way to exist as an individual is to navigate the system as it currently is. To him, if you don’t vote, you don’t care. Why? Because the system has given you one outlet to care, and if you don’t take it, you must not be interested in the system. Paxman’s perspective on the situation echoes the theory of “Power and Authority,” as I outlined in an article from earlier this week. In this set-up, the public is complacent only when the advantage of rebelling against the system is greater than the risk. To Jeremy Paxman, he calculates Russell Brand’s lack of voting as inaction simply because he doesn’t see his behavior as being relevant to the current power structure.
Looking instead at the other model, the Principle of Legitimacy, Brand’s actions are perfectly in line with that of a concerned and engaged citizen. Brand is looking beyond the voting system and is rejecting the current structure on the basis that it is not worthy of the authority it currently holds, and is exploring possibilities for a new system of power that would be legitimate.
Gawker called Brand’s interview the “start of a revolution.” I agree that Brand’s arguments are in line with an overthrow of the system of power as it currently is, but I caution those brimming with rebellious fervor from drifting too far away from the relevance of Paxman’s arguments. His criticisms of Brand are the very ones that need to be confronted articulately and carefully, just as Brand did, so that the “revolution” is first in the way that we think about the current system of power rather than simply a fight against the powers that be.
It’s important to stay focused on a need for legitimacy rather than simply trying to discredit those in power. In the words of Brand, we need to recognize our right to speak out, and to call for a better system: “I don’t need the right from you. I don’t need the right from anybody. I’m taking it.”