Not for the first time in his life, Russell Brand has seen his name and image plastered across newspapers in recent weeks. A host of allegations are levelled against him, pertaining to sexual assault, rape, harassment, and stalking. The accusations are serious and, if true — which Brand denies — the victims undoubtedly deserve justice.
The question, however, is what that justice looks like. Following the media investigation which brought the allegations to light, and the sensational Channel 4 Dispatches program which aired them, the Metropolitan Police have now launched a criminal investigation into Brand’s conduct. Difficulties of proving accusations of sexual violence in court aside, it would seem that justice ought to now be a straightforward matter. Brand will either be found guilty or he will not. If he is, he will be punished accordingly. Problem solved: the scales of Lady Justice levelled once again at a happy equilibrium.
A simple and attractive picture, it unfortunately fails to reflect how these kinds of allegations now play out in practical terms. Lady Justice is not the only one holding the scales. Instead, guilt is determined and adjudicated upon in the public sphere where there exists another kind of court: the court of public opinion. In some senses, of course, this is nothing new. Scandals around prominent figures have long captured public attention — especially where sex is involved — and have played out in the media as much as the courts. It speaks to something perennial, if a little dark, about the human condition that we enjoy gossip and speculation about the misdemeanours of others; and relish, with a certain self-satisfied security, in the drama of seeing the mighty fall from grace.
What has changed, however, is where power lies. Previously, when a public figure found themselves embroiled in a scandal, they might have lost their job, been axed from marketing deals, and have had various other titles or privileges taken away from them. Now, thanks to the internet and social media giving us all a platform upon which to make our voices heard, that is only one part of the story. The fate of such individuals no longer rests solely with the institutions they represent, nor with the legal system. Instead, the real mark of ignominy is to be cancelled — the capacity for which rests with us, the public. Brand has now been cancelled for good; so justice has been served.
Of course, one might worry whether this actually is justice. The allegations against Brand are just that: they have not been proven one way or the other. Some have objected that his cancelling amounts to a betrayal of the presumption of innocence: the assumption, upheld in court, that a person is innocent until proven guilty. How — they submit — is it fair that YouTube has demonetised his videos, and the BBC has removed former broadcasts of his from their archives, before any kind of definitive verdict has been reached in court? A valid question, perhaps; but cancel culture is not interested in any legal notion of justice. Fundamentally, it is concerned with social justice. What matters is not so much whether an actual crime has been committed, in the legal sense, but whether a social crime has been committed — some behaviour or comment not merely deemed unacceptable given the values and age of the society in which we live, but inherently harmful to those values. That is why the behaviour or comments which get a person ‘cancelled’ almost always pertain to some person, or group’s, social identity: their gender, race, sexuality, religious affiliation, class, nationality, and so on. People are cancelled for suggesting, through their words or actions, that any such feature of identity should provide the basis for unfair differential treatment. The point of cancel culture is not to bring some particular individual to justice on behalf of some particular victim, but to deliver justice to society as a whole — by eradicating views and behaviour which oppose a culture in which people are treated fairly and equally, regardless of their social identity.
It is hard to see how any reasonable individual could disagree with such motivations. It is perhaps also fair to say that whilst the recent allegations against Brand remain indefinite, they have shone the spotlight on previous comments and actions of his, such as presenting women as inferior sexual objects, which are certainly socially harmful. The problem however, is not that the principles underlying cancel culture are wrong, but that ‘cancelling’ is a flawed mechanism by which to go about achieving them.
These sites are fertile ground for the kinds of behaviour and language cancel culture sees as harmful — as detrimental to social justice — most especially because those engaging with them are usually those already persuaded by them. Within these echo chambers, there is a strong sense of community; a sense of a unified ‘us’ rallying against the ‘them’ of the mainstream which would seek to silence the views they ascribe to. As much as the alt-right bemoans the supposed ‘victim culture’ of cancelling, they see themselves as the victims of a wayward mainstream culture conspiring to suppress them. It is no surprise that Brand has appealed to his fans in claiming to be the “victim of a conspiracy to silence him”: there is power in that identity. The more their views are deemed unspeakable, and the more their figureheads ‘cancelled’, the more they become entrenched in their opinions and less responsive to reasoned debate. Truth no longer matters — it is the narrative that counts. A narrative which presents them as those who ‘know’, and the mainstream as dangerously misguided and deluded. The fact that their various proponents have been cancelled only lends such figures a greater aura of cult-like leadership: they are martyrs who have died for their cause. If Brand is not convicted, he is all the more likely to be held up as a saint by adoring fans who already hang on his every word.
If the aim of cancel culture is to bring about a less harmful, more loving and balanced society, it is failing spectacularly. Instead, it is polarising us; and entrenching problematic views in soil where they are all the more likely to take root, and resist reasoned, liberal debate. Rather than eradicating perspectives detrimental to social justice, cancel culture is enabling them — it is undermining the very principles it is established upon. The real victim of cancel culture is cancel culture itself.
Illustration by Calum Mayor