You always have the option of having no opinion.
–Marcus Aurelius, from Meditations
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Last weekend, Russell Brand, comedian and anti-establishment influencer1, high-profile critic of capitalism and corporate power, was accused of sexual assault and rape. And the internet has been on fire since.
This case is both tragic and fascinating. Tragic because allegations of sexual assault always demand serious scrutiny and due process, and because the repercussions of the case are already sweeping. And fascinating because, as with many other divisive topics, it exposes the fractures in our culture and our politics. Like one of those agents they inject you with before you have a medical scan.
But let’s back up. As of today, Friday, September 22, here’s the situation:
What we know
- Multiple women accused Brand of rape, sexual assault and physical and emotional abuse, according to a joint investigation by The Sunday Times, The Times and UK current affairs show Dispatches. The incidents allegedly happened between 2003 and 2013.
- Brand denied the charges. He posted a video before they dropped, claiming they were part of a “coordinated attack”. Then he suspended his media and public activities.
- YouTube stopped Brand from making money with his channel on the basis of the allegations. Sponsors (and guests) dropped out of his show. British MPs requested that several media platforms also suspend Brand. And the CEO of Rumble – the independent video service that hosts Brand’s show – told them where they could stick it.
What we don’t know
- Whether Brand is guilty or innocent of these alleged crimes.
- Whether all this is an orchestrated establishment hit-job or a solid piece of investigative journalism (or something in between).
That’s it. Sure, there’s more context that’s relevant. But those are the underlying facts.
And on that basis, we should perhaps hold judgment until more evidence emerges. And until that evidence is presented in a court of law, from both prosecution and defence. Right?
But holding judgment isn’t what humans do. Especially not in the social media age.
And so the reaction to this story has fallen — predictably, tribally, religiously — into two broad camps. Those who say the allegations are true; that Brand is a sexual predator, and that he should be cancelled. And those who say the charges are part of an establishment attack to take him down.
I’ll leave conservative discourse out of this analysis, since that serves us less here. Within what you might call the ‘progressive’ end of the spectrum, the two Brand camps each appear to be composed of distinct political groups. The first camp seems to be populated largely by left-liberals, who are more trusting of legacy media and governmental processes. The second camp looks to be made up of what I'll call the anti-establishment left — those skeptical of mainstream narratives and authority figures.
Of course it’s a spectrum and there’s variation, but those are the general lines. Brand has become an avatar in a political and cultural battle: depending on where you stand, either for the protection of women from abuse, or for the right to hold establishment power to account.
The problem is that currently, there’s no definitive evidence for either of these positions. And also that both could be true. Across social media platforms, zoom calls and kitchen tables, people are rushing to a blinkered, binary judgment.
And that has a cost. The left-liberals, in condemning Brand, are instigating a dangerous trial-by-media. This is redolent of mob rule, and endangers the fundamental concept of ‘innocent until proven guilty’.
Meanwhile, the anti-establishment left, in leaping to Brand’s defence, are glossing over serious allegations in a case where it’s traditionally hard for women to get justice.
My personal view
But of course, I’m not neutral here either. By raising these issues, by their very selection and emphasis, I’m sharing a point of view. So although regular readers of this blog will know this already, let me disclose my priors.
I’ve followed Brand’s work for years, and found value in it. Yes, sometimes it was clickbaity (those video titles; those thumbnails), the tone was conspiratorial, the evidence often one-sided. And I could have done without the ads for supplements (it’s always supplements!).
But I found Brand very effective as an anti-establishment voice. He reached an audience of millions, through his podcast and shows and guest appearance and bestselling books.1 With humour and a quick mind, he spoke to the mass of people whose concerns legacy media stopped addressing years ago. He stuck a tattooed finger into power’s weak spots, like querying the rationale and risks of war in Ukraine, looking at corporate over-reach, corruption, the bungled handling of the pandemic, how energy companies make a killing on the backs of ordinary people. Brand asked the right questions. He struck a nerve.
So if he is found guilty of all this in a court of law, how will I feel? I’ll experience a mix of emotions.
I'll be glad that his victims got justice, and for the precedent it will set for men everywhere. I’ll be mildly annoyed that trial-by-media, which is always wrong, will seem to have been vindicated. And about Brand, I’ll feel disgust for his behaviour, but also anger: Your voice was necessary, you dumb bastard. And now it’s gone.
But we’re not there yet. And we may never be. So in the meantime, perhaps we can relax the motivated reasoning, calm our desire for a social media slam-dunk. Delay our gratification, our need for justice — until it’s actually done. As maddening as it is, maybe we can simply wait and see.
1: There is an argument circulating that Brand wasn’t really a big player in the anti-establishment space… an ‘ex-comedian YouTuber’. I would disagree. Some quick data points: He has amassed millions of followers across social media platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram, cutting across various demographics. He has authored multiple, bestselling books like “Revolution” that openly advocate for societal and political change. His podcast and videos on political and social topics, often feature guests who are thought leaders or activists in the anti-establishment space. And he is an easy gateway for anyone new to politics or anti-establishment ideas -- with his prior status as an entertainer, appearing on various platforms other than his own, and hosting guests from across the ideological spectrum. Lastly, his conversations often delve into philosophy, history, and metapolitics, thereby raising the intellectual rigour of the anti-establishment discourse.
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