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The recent incendiary online spat between the American Fox News Anchor-man Sean Hannity and the British stand-up comedian Russell Brand has provided some moments of unprofessional journalist practices (Hannity) and some moments of quintessential Britishness (Brand).  This is not the forum to delve into the political motivations behind each of the protagonists, neither is it the place to offer support or disagreement to the argument, but the highly emotional subject of the (current) Israel-Palestine conflict debated between these two media faces seems to have exposed an all too familiar prejudice.

It started with Brand’s response to the initial report and interview slot from Hannity who had impressed his personal (pro-Israeli) opinion on a Muslim guest, without seemingly giving him the opportunity to respond.  Amongst his rebuke, Brand referred to Hannity as a ‘Ken doll’, the toy doll which was introduced in 1961(by Mattel) as a boyfriend to Barbie, whose appearance is that of a dimpled and fashionable all-American male. 

The response from Hannity and his guest panellists, chosen presumably for their affiliation to Hannity and Fox News, was both personal and vitriolic.  But one comment proved to be a game changer, taking the debate to an entirely new level.

One member of the panel, Bernard McGurk, an ex-cab driver from the Bronx who is now an executive producer of the ABC/Fox national morning radio show ‘Imus in the Morning’ (fronted by ‘shock jock’ Dan Imus),  started the onslaught with; ‘This guy’s got a skanky look, he looks like he cooks meth and sleeps in his car’.  His comment encouraged bursts of laughter from Hannity and the rest of the panel, suggesting agreement with his description of Brand.

This is a dangerous precedent to take. Not only assuming the nature of a person by a stereotypical opinion based on their appearance, but also, having an apparent disregard to a person’s history of drug abuse.  Brand has been very outspoken about his problem with drug and alcohol use, particularly heroin, and is equally vocal about the difficulties of recovery.  His response to the offensive remark was once again measured and succinct; ‘Drug addiction is a real issue.  That’s not a derisory remark to be bounded around.  I’m 11 years clean in recovery; people are dying of drug addiction all the time.  It’s an attitude of non-compassion, of hatred and antipathy.’

Brand does have some authority on the subject. He is an addict in recovery, and like many, every day for him is a journey through recovery. He has used his celebrity and fortune to help highlight these very issues and is well regarded enough to front a BBC TV documentary ‘From Addiction to Recovery’ and to be asked to appear in front of Home Affairs Select Committee at the House of Commons to answer questions before an inquiry into drug policy.

Stigma is a real issue to addicts in recovery, so much so that the UK Drug Policy Commission completed a comprehensive study into the stigma surrounding drug use in 2012.  In what it refers to as the ‘trinity of biases’, the UK Drug Policy Commission considers that prejudice, discrimination and stigma are all contributors to a negative perception held by those outside of the addiction community.  Projecting stigma on an addict enforces a label that they are likely to find difficult to shift; ‘The term “stigma” is particularly relevant to how people with drug problems are viewed, as it carries the connotation of branding, with the implicit assumption that they can’t change. The attitude is: “Once a junkie, always a junkie”. So an additional burden is added to basic prejudice which cannot be removed by recovery, however hard-won.’ (UK Drug Policy Commission, 2012).

We will all remember being told at some point in our lives that we should ‘not judge a book by its cover’ and whilst simplistic, this is a good starting point for many.  The sociological theory of ‘labeling’ examines how self-identity and behaviour is influenced by terms used to describe an individual.  In his 1963 book ‘The Outsiders’, Howard Becker explores how two groups of people, drug users and dancers, come to be labeled as deviants and concludes that; ‘Labeling places the actor in circumstances which make it harder for him to continue the normal routines of everyday life and thus provoke him to “abnormal" actions.’  It is easy from this to see how we might create a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Society has a responsibility, along with the individual, to help break the cycle of addiction and whilst the media has a role to play in forming public perceptions, we must be wary of their motivations.

Addiction and recovery exists and is a very real issue for all of us.  Even if we think that we are personally untouched by addiction, it still affects the world and more directly, the communities we live in.  But of course there will always be people in society who fail to accept the depth of the problem and/or treat it’s victims with disdain.  Education may well be the key to resolving this widespread problem, as Brand concedes; ‘it is a compliment to look like the Ken doll from Toy Story 3, none of us thought that he wasn’t handsome, we just thought he was plastic, stupid, superficial, vacuous and vain’.


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