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Monday 29 January 2018

The Rules of Unreason #2: Branded

[This essay is part of a series of essays on the use of 'covert aggression' in religion and politics. For an introduction to the series, and an explanation of the concept of covert aggression, click here]

In 2008, a BBC radio show hosted by Russell Brand sparked national outrage. Brand and his guest, fellow comedian Jonathon Ross, made some on-air phone calls to the actor Andrew Sachs, whom Brand had invited onto the show. Sachs wasn’t picking up his phone, and Brand was piqued by this. He and Ross proceeded to leave a series of lewd messages on the answer machine of Mr Sachs, who was 78 years old at the time.
‘He f--ked your granddaughter!’, Ross blurted out, in reference to the fact that, just before the call, Brand had bragged to his listeners about doing that very thing. In subsequent messages, the two comedians proceeded to repeat – and revel in – the allegation, while nominally ‘apologising’ for Ross’s outburst. At one point, Brand riffs that the liaison ‘was consensual and she wasn’t menstrual’. Ross imagines Sachs ‘sobbing over his answer machine… he has probably got a picture of his grandchildren when they were young and innocent right by the phone’. Brand continues, adding bizarrely and sinisterly: ‘We can keep ringing, and even after the show’s finished, kick his front door in and scream apologies into his bottom’. Later in the show, Brand makes a fake announcement: ‘The main news again… Andrew Sachs hung himself today’.

The Rules of Unreason #1: Impolite Company

They say you should never discuss religion and politics in polite company. But why not? The obvious answer is that people get heated when talking about these topics. But why? Why do people get heated when talking about religion and politics? The answer to this question is far from obvious. And that’s part of the problem. When you get involved in a discussion about religion and politics, the onset of mutual animosity can be subtle and surprising. You often find yourself inexplicably feeling defensive, or exasperatedly trying to make yourself clear. Your temper rises the more you feel unsettled.
I used to think religion and politics were both inherently controversial topics. But now I think otherwise; I think some people needlessly make them controversial. The penny dropped for me when I was reading one of the most eye-opening books I have ever read: In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People, by psychiatrist George K. Simon. In this unheralded masterpiece, Dr Simon describes the phenomenon of ‘covert aggression’. You’ve probably never heard of covert aggression. But I guarantee you’ve encountered it. You may even have practised it yourself – especially if you hold strong political or religious views.

Wellbeing on Campus

[This article first appeared on the School of Life blog in 2011]
According to the popular image, most students indulge in years of hedonism capped by raucous post-exam celebrations – a privileged minority enjoying the “best days of their lives”. No doubt there is some truth to this caricature, but a recent report from the Royal College of Psychiatrists reminds us that every silver lining has its cloud.
Mental illness is a serious problem on UK campuses, explains the report, which is entitled Mental Health of Students in Higher Education. In the last ten years, studies have shown as many as 65% of female and 54% of male undergraduate students scoring positively on the General Health Questionnaire, which screens for minor psychiatric disorders. One team of researchers found 29% of students describing clinical levels of psychological distress, whether anxiety, depression, obsessiveness or social alienation. More recently, a survey of higher education institutions revealed that, of those who responded, 80% recorded an increased demand for mental health provision over the previous five years.

Working Definitions

[This article first appeared on the School of Life blog in 2011]

“I'm a bit of a perfectionist… See, for me, it's got to be the best, or it's nothing at all. Like, if things get a bit dodgy, I just can’t be bothered.”

Spud, Trainspotting
The Journal of Modern Wisdom, a new volume of essays of which I am editor, is imperfect. And I don’t care. Don’t get me wrong: I care very much about promoting wisdom. The point is: I believe that doing so is important enough that even imperfect wisdom is better for the wellbeing of society than none at all.  
To judge by the irate emails I’ve received from a few philosophers, you’d think I was working for the Thought Police. Apparently “you can’t define wisdom” – or at least not without, bizarrely, recognizing the impossibility first. That’s funny, because contributors Richard Layard, Theodore Dalrymple, Judith Rich Harris, Stephen Bayley and David Cooper, among others (not to mention numerous lexicographers), have all had a good crack at it.