Russell Brand and the crisis of scepticism
Both Brand’s critics and his fans have forgotten how important doubt is to civilisation.
So, this Russell Brand thing. Is it an open-and-shut case of rape? Or is it a stitch-up by ‘the regime’? Here’s my radical proposition: it’s neither. The accusations against Brand, which are serious and grim, have not been tested in a rigorous enough fashion for any of us to be able to say: ‘He is guilty of sexual assault.’ At the same time, the cries from Brand fanboys about ‘Them’ taking him down, about Big Pharma and its lackeys in Big Media targeting Brand because he hosts a popular, vax-sceptical YouTube show, sound cranky in the extreme. On one side we have a rush to judgement, on the other a rush to conspiracism. Where has good, honest scepticism gone?
No one should downplay what is being said about Brand in the investigation carried out by The Sunday Times and Channel 4’s Dispatches. Four women are alleging that he sexually assaulted them between 2006 and 2013, during the height of his fame as a comic and ‘serial shagger’. Some of the accusations are very serious. One woman says he raped her. Text messages between the woman and Brand do seem to suggest something terrible happened. ‘When a girl say[s] NO it means no’, the woman wrote. Brand replied saying he was ‘very sorry’. One can easily imagine such messages appearing as evidence in a court case on sexual assault. Brand has questions to answer.
Yet should we now accept that he is a rapist? That he is guilty of it all? To my mind, no. I do not want to live in a society where a man can be branded a rapist by accusation alone. That way tyranny lies. Without the guardrail of the presumption of innocence, without the democratic requirement of proving someone’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before we mark him a ‘criminal’ and banish him from the public eye, society would descend into chaos. Lives and reputations might be destroyed by the mere point of a finger. Indeed, in the #MeToo era, numerous men had their lives utterly upended by allegations made from the pulpit of the mass media, far outside the bounds of normal justice.
‘Is the accuser always holy now?’, John Proctor famously asks in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Terrifyingly, the modern West’s answer to that question seems to be ‘Yes’. ‘Believe women’ was the slogan of #MeToo. It sounded like a feminist cry, but in truth it chipped away at every pillar of justice. Of course women who make accusations of sexual assault should be treated seriously. That includes the women confronting Brand. But instant belief, the uncritical treatment of allegation as truth, betrays the scepticism that is essential to justice. That scepticism is best embodied in the presumption of innocence, which implicitly encourages us to doubt, at some level, the word of the accuser. Until such a time as we have weighed up the evidence, of course. It is bizarre that Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has become the literary moral anchor of the modern West, and yet its core cry – that it is wrong to rush to judgement even in cases of alleged rape – has been lost to history.
Scepticism does not mean thinking that accusers are liars. It certainly doesn’t mean dismissing them as handmaidens of ‘the regime’, doing the bidding of The Man for clout or cash, as some of Brand’s online army are saying of the women making allegations against him. It simply means reserving judgement until all the evidence has been presented and tested to its limits. There’s a reason criminal trials are weighted in favour of the defendant and against the prosecution – why defendants are presumed innocent, can remain silent and must have their guilt demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt in the eyes of 12 ordinary men or women. It’s because society values freedom so highly that it decided, over time, to make it very difficult indeed to suspend someone’s freedom, even where they are accused of a crime. No one will thank you for making this point, but it’s an important one: Russell Brand’s life should not be destroyed just because he has been accused of criminal behaviour.
Yet where there is a dearth of democratic scepticism in the ‘Believe women’ lobby, there’s been a warping of scepticism among Brand’s followers and in the broader ‘anti-regime’ set. Among those WEF obsessives who follow Brand, the kind of people who can’t go three minutes without saying the word ‘scamdemic’, the accusations against Brand were instantly dismissed. It’s a fit-up, they cried. The globalists and the MSM are out to get our boy. Apparently, Brand’s journey from wideboy comic to warrior against the ‘Covid narrative’ has got the ruling class rattled. So they’re destroying him.
This isn’t scepticism, either. It’s conspiratorial fantasy. There is no evidence whatsoever that globalist bigwigs and media men sat down to plot Brand’s downfall. It just doesn’t stack up as a theory. Numerous men have been the subject of #MeToo-style accusations, including men who have all the ‘correct’ opinions. Harvey Weinstein was a full-on Democrat, for heaven’s sake. To those of us who are more interested in making rational assessments of society than in crying on Twitter about the Brand-bashing paymasters of our Covid regime, the allegations against Brand seem very much in keeping with a climate of accusation that existed long before anyone had heard the phrase ‘Covid-19’.
Instant belief is a problem – but so is instant disbelief. In both cases, cynicism usurps scepticism. Calm and reasoned questioning is pushed aside by a moral agenda. For the ‘Believe women’ wing of the elites, instant belief helps to fortify their self-serving narrative about male predation and female victimhood. For the cynics of the ‘anti-regime’ movement, instant disbelief is a useful reminder that no official narrative is trustworthy. No Big Media outlet, no politician and nothing that harms their heroes should ever be trusted. Both sides elevate ideology over truth. Both sides forget how essential doubt is – honest, curious, evidence-seeking doubt – to a fair and free society. Is Brand guilty? I don’t know. And here’s the tough thing: I doubt we ever will.
Brendan O’Neill is spiked’s chief political writer and host of the spiked podcast, The Brendan O’Neill Show. Subscribe to the podcast here. His new book – A Heretic’s Manifesto: Essays on the Unsayable – is available to order on Amazon UK and Amazon US now. And find Brendan on Instagram: @burntoakboy
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