Monday, 13 August 2012

"Absolutely Nothing Resembling Reason, Thought or Fact": Peter Hitchens v. Russell Brand

In what is a surely instant classic piece of Newsnight footage a few nights ago, the Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens and the comedian Russell Brand exchanged verbal punches over drug policy (apparently there was also a Tory MP and a guy call Chip, but I don't remember). The debate was, for news junkies, great television, constituting a meeting of two polar opposites of British society - Brand, the too-charismatic-for-his-own-good, socially conscious, slightly irritating youth and Hitchens - a dying breed of cartoonish patriarchal Toryism that treats complex social and political issues as if they're debates that were decided long ago with the ultra-right having won and acts perpetually frustrated that nobody else seems to have noticed. Hitchens barks his arguments at his opponents like he's spelling out a very simple word to an illiterate teenager - "It's P-R-I-S-O-N, why is that so difficult for you to understand?"

The debate got meta at a couple of points, with contestants (can I call them that?) wondering about who was qualified to have the debate they were currently having. "Why is a comedian being given a program on the BBC?" asked Hitchens. Of course, Brand wasn't acting in his capacity as a comedian, but as a former drug addict, which is an admittedly unscientific way to look at the issue, since Brand's sample size in his documentary is too small to be one which could seriously inform policy, but surely that's irrelevant? Peter Hitchens is given a weekly platform to discuss issues on which he holds no qualifications - as his denial of evolution demonstrates, yet nobody seems to mind this University of York politics graduate give us his opinion on biological science.

The honest answer is, of course, that neither Brand nor Hitchens are qualified to discuss drug policy since they're not policy experts. Brand has the slight upper hand because he has first-hand experience of drug addiction, whereas Hitchens' only qualification is that he's angry about things and writes about those things in the Mail on Sunday. If we were conducting a research study, we could certainly use Brand as an interviewee, whereas I would be inclined to stay well-clear of Hitchens for my report, since he has a political axe to grind. I'm being unfair - Hitchens has written books about the criminal justice system, but they're polemical, rather than scholarly works and so he really shouldn't be so snooty about the idea that a comedian would be asked about drug policy, because he lacks expertise as well. The BBC could maybe have called up Professor David Nutt, a genuine expert on drug policy with a seemingly radical viewpoint based on scientific research, but maybe he wasn't available.

Most of the substantive policy arguments came from Hitchens, so if this piece seems heavily skewed against him, it's because he was the one with ideas. They were shoddy ideas, sure, but they were ideas, so clap-clap Hitchens for being on-point, I guess. His first argument was that drug addiction is a crime, but that's not really true, is it? There's no actus reus in the condition of being a drug addict, otherwise the methadone clinics would be staffed by police officers. I'm not just being pedantic here, because there is a serious point - Hitchens' was really just making the point that drug addiction is an offshoot of possession and possession is a crime which should be enforced heavily so potential drug users don't feel like taking drugs is a good idea. The problem is that addiction is a medical condition, whereas possession is a factual situation and the distinction matters. At times Hitchens seemed to suggest that there was no such thing as drug addiction because that implied lack of free will, but that's spurious since addiction implies dependence, not lack of autonomy. His argument is essentially Deterrence 101 - that people will obey the law if it is sufficiently harsh and the cost-benefit analysis makes committing the crime irrational, but this fails to consider the research suggesting that people obey the laws when they feel them to be legitimate and aren't always performing cost-benefit calculations. Drug policy does not enjoy widespread public support (I'm not going to reference that - it's common knowledge) and harsher penalties for what a great deal of people see as a largely victimless crime will decrease the legitimacy of the democratic law-making systems.

Now let me be clear - deterrence is not a ridiculous reason for supporting a law per se, but in the case of drug use it's a different matter, because unless you have a panoptic situation whereby people are under constant, active surveillance inside their living rooms or on their street corners, people are highly unlikely to weigh up the cost-benefits of being caught injecting heroin and come down on the side that it makes no rational sense to do so because of the likelihood of criminal prosecution, because they know full well that in the comfort of their own homes it's extremely unlikely that they will be caught. Now that's just the rational mind working here, the addicted mind is much more likely to ignore the costs. This is empirically the case with strict enforcement on cannabis users, for instance. So Hitchens' appeal to reason is a red herring; at the very least the evidence is murky on deterrence and there is a lot which points to a harm-reduction policy as being more effective than zero-tolerance drug policies in reducing not just the social costs of drug use and addiction (which I'm not denying), but also in the prevalence of drug use itself.

The typical place at the end of a piece would be to advocate some sort of policy option, but I feel that would be hypocritical since I'm not an expert on drug policy, either. What I do know is that the issue of drug policy is not as clear cut as either Brand or Hitchens would have it. Let's be fair here, abstinence-only treatment is not as effective as one which incorporates methadone and abstinence together. Being fairer still, however, I think Hitchens deserves the brunt of the scorn, since his claim is essentially that the only reason harm-reduction is pursued as a policy is because of political correctness, which despite his constant appeal to reason, is so irreverent it's practically a conspiracy theory. Neither Brand nor Hitchens had any good policy options, unfortunately. Still, was good television.

1 comment:

  1. Faced with a debate between two people I take great care to despise, I have to admit to being taken aback by how sensical Brand was being - he lapsed into his usual pandering to the lower orders (the whole homophobia points scoring ordeal at the end, for example) but he made some pertinent points.

    Alas, with all such television, the best points were lost in the quagmire of a 'who can talk the loudest' competition. Brand won that, by the way. His voice has a similar piercing quality to that of a 3-4 month old baby screaming for great glory on an airliner.

    Jesting aside - I think Hitchins makes the mistake of seeing conspiracy instead of incompetence, Brand makes the mistake of seeing hate where there's merely fear and Newsnight makes the mistake of pitting one against the other and expecting a debate rather than an argument.

    First person to quote South Park in relation to this fails at everything.