I used to hate Russell Brand. I say hate, but what I really mean is that I wrote him off as an unredeemable, facile, vacuous misogynist. He became an irrelevance to me.
Really, this post isn’t about Russell Brand, although I highly recommend watching his YouTube channel. This post is actually about myself and an aspect of “cancel culture”: the denial of human growth.
I have long been uncomfortable with Twitter and the kinds of online shaming that Jon Ronson wrote about in So you’ve been publicly shamed. Moreover, as I have mentioned elsewhere, I find the “forever” aspects of social media to be distinctly anti-human and in direct opposition to the ways in which human memory works. To quote myself upon being faced with FaceBook’s Timeline,
I felt a demand for a continuity and an inference of coherence which felt, somehow, antithetical to what it meant to be human. The ability for anyone to follow the trajectory of my life, from any point in time, back or forth, felt like a cage of permanence which inhibited my very human irrationalities. It felt like a curtailment of any possibility of redefinition, the cessation of an open-ended future of my choosing; a continuity with my past would now dictate all.
Human beings change. It is what we do. Yet, I feel we have long reached a place where we do not allow others to change and to grow. We insist on a continuity with a past, even if that past was 5 tweets by your 18 year old self a decade ago. Social media is forever and who you were before is all you can be now.
I was raised to be a homophobe. Whilst my parents were very “live and let live” in respect of gay people, they felt that being gay was abnormal. Heterosexuality was normal because that’s how human beings procreate, and any deviation from that heteronormativity was fine behind closed doors between consenting adults, but fundamentally unnatural. I think that was a pretty common opinion in the 1970s and 1980s.
At some point in the very early 1990s, I worked alongside a gay man and plied him with, what I am sure were, deeply ignorant questions. His name was David and I still see his friendly, kind, and bespectacled face across the desk from me. He patiently answered every single question I had until I understood how wrong my assumptions were. You could say he cured me of the homophobia I was raised with. He gave me the opportunity to grow and come out the other side a significantly better person.
Now I know that the emotional labour involved in educating someone out of their prejudice can be exhausting and debilitating. I am not saying everyone has to be David. But I do think that as a society, we need to be more like David and less like those who go for the jugular when someone fucks up. We need more grace and the capacity to walk people through the badlands and into a place where they have more compassion for people who are different. If not, who are we to judge when really we are just the other side of the mirror?
Imagine that there was social media when I was young and I had voiced the kind of opinion I was raised with. There would be no David helping me through my ignorance, there would be an avalanche of condemnation and shame. I do not believe shame to be a space from which a person can easily emerge a better person. Rather, I think shaming a person for their ignorance often reinforces it. At the very least, it will slow down their growth. Shame does not nurture, it erodes.
But more, it is fundamentally anti-human to disallow growth in this way. To hammer a person into oblivion for something they said or believed in the past, but no longer believe now, is tantamount to denying a person their humanity, in that it denies them the opportunity to learn, grow, change. More, when you are treating a person as badly as they treat others, then all you do is legitimate their ugliness because you are it reflected back to them.
It is no wonder there is so much virtue signalling and performativity in society nowadays: people have no time to understand who they really are, nor know where they really stand on any given topic, nor have the space in which to grow and change. Instead, people perform their allegiance to one topic or another without any genuine commitment to the principles they claim to espouse. I believe this is because they fear what will happen if they say or do the wrong thing. This is how you get the utterly bizarre and logically and rationally inconsistent group of fanatics who designate those of us who are anti-vaccine mandates, as fascists, nazis, racists, misogynists, and now, it seems, terrorists. When in reality, what we are is anti-discrimination, pro-choice, and pro human rights (bodily integrity). It would be fascinating if it wasn’t so terrifying.
But more, when we deny a human being the possibility of growth, when we deny a human being the possibility of change, not only do we diminish them but we diminish ourselves too. We lose the opportunity to learn from them, to see and value their contribution to the world, a contribution which, as Russell Brand has clearly demonstrated, can morph into something valuable and positive.
Change is who we are as a species, and change needs space, growth, freedom, flexibility, and the opportunity to learn from our mistakes. Without it, we are living in a cage.