‘I defend Russell Brand – he made my working-class students interested in politics, philosophy and economics’
Scott Hayden, lecturer at Basingstoke College of Technology, writes:
Russell Brand has many of my students interested, engaged and fired-up about politics and culture.
I know that to many in education, Brand’s status as an egotistical celebrity womaniser undermines the integrity of his more noble efforts to engage disenfranchised young people with talk of real political change.
On Twitter, I have been urged to reconsider my support for Russell with articles that are damning of his behaviour and his evolution from charismatic Victorian dandy to social media revolutionary. Peers for whom I have the utmost respect and admiration have argued that his narcissistic, greedy, arrogant and selfish manner over the last 10 years as a celebrity negates his recent reinvention. Indeed, many an online naysayer points to his Newsnight appearances, popular YouTube series ‘The Trews’, books and political activism as nothing more than zeitgeist-appropriate hipster rebellion.
I just can’t see it that way.
I know that it is important to be sceptical, yet I cannot help but be wary of the attempts to dismiss him based on prejudice against his celebrity. If celebrities have the loudest voice in our culture and Russell wants to use his star to illuminate, question and deconstruct politics and the fabric of the simulated media reality that supports it – I see that as a fascinating thing.
Contrary to what many people say, Brand is anti-apathy, anti-indifference, but NOT "anti-voting" as has been reported. By refusing to perpetuate the political hegemony that he believes does not serve the people’s needs but instead serves big business, he refuses to be complicit and/or party to our continued subordination. But, of course, that isn't as juicy or easy a soundbite as "Brand is anti-voting".
"Vote for something worth voting for" is a message that resonates on the verge of a general election.
Many educators I work with may see him as a silly pretentious clown but I can’t help but side with many of my students, who instead see a compassionate recovering addict who is genuinely trying to change things by turning media attention to issues that actually matter. Anyway, maybe, just maybe, the system in which we live is in need of having its pants pulled down.
And students respond. From Lenny Bruce to Bill Hicks to Richard Pryor to George Carlin – asking questions in a playful and irreverent way has an effect on young people and can, in my experience, lead to questioning, reading, exploring and debating.That seems like a good thing to me. Satire should not be underestimated as an "in" to more sophisticated and nuanced discussion in the classroom.
Although it should have been expected that he would become a target for the establishment – embodying as he does a nightmare conflation of working-class estuary accent, autodidactic intelligence and purposeful voracious energy – it is his dismissal by some of those in left-leaning educational circles that I can't understand.
This week he responded to the mocking of his arguments (and accent) online, and the subtext of ‘How can a man who speaks like this possibly know the vocabulary and language of these topics?’ in a parody of the recent Parklife meme (which saw internet trolls suggesting that Brand's verbose Phil Daniels-esque sentences sounded like they should be punctuated by Damon Albarn singing the title to the Blur song, Parklife):
"Verbal dexterity plus estuary accent is what leads to parody of Parklife. But words used efficiently can be a dangerous tool that slices through propaganda like a sharp knife."
I teach many working-class students who, partly because of Brand, have begun to delve in to what are typically considered difficult topics (economics, politics and philosophy, to name but three) because they have been made accessible, interesting and funny.
I’m not suggesting that Brand has all (or any) of the answers – just that he is asking us to ask questions. I really believe that what he is doing has value to my students for that reason.
My students and I have been discussing this as a starter Twitter debate in lectures. It is their response that led to this blog post, as the reaction from many of them was angry, genuine and exciting. Join in if you like on the hashtag #bcotbrand
Scott Hayden is specialist practitioner of social media and ed tech and a lecturer in creative arts and technologies at Basingstoke College of Technology