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Dividing the world into heroes and villains does us little good

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Two main schools of thought seem to have led the responses to the shocking allegations of rape and sexual assault that have been made against comedian and YouTuber Russell Brand over the past week or so.

Either Brand is “a hero” being subjected to a witch-hunt for standing up to the dark forces of the mainstream establishment, or he’s a maleficent and misogynistic monster whose income stream should be immediately stopped and who should be condemned before he has had any kind of due process. Brand has strenuously denied all the allegations against him.

Elon Musk’s response to the story seemed to demonstrate this dichotomy: “I support Russell Brand. That man is not evil,” Musk posted on his X platform, formerly known as Twitter. 

Must we really have to choose between declaring “support” for a man who is accused of repulsive acts that made me feel physically sick, or condemning him as pure “evil”? The rush to do the latter, before his guilt has been established in any legal forum, has been astonishingly rapid.

Within a few days of the news, YouTube said it had “suspended monetisation” for Brand’s channels. The video streaming platform said this was to protect its “creator responsibility policy”, and that it takes action if a creator’s “off-platform behaviour” is deemed to harm its “users, employees or ecosystem”. But should Big Tech really be acting as the arbiter in this way, in a case that is yet to go to court? Is this about guarding against harm or protecting its brand? And are we to assume that it has made sure its other tens of millions of content creators are doing no harm?

We seem to have an irrepressible urge to place people into “good” and “bad” buckets, when we all know that it is rarely — if ever — quite as simple as that. “The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reminded us in The Gulag Archipelago. But we find it hard to accept this: if someone does bad things, we don’t want to acknowledge that they may possess any virtues at all.

I witnessed another example of this propensity recently, when I dared to suggest, on two occasions, that former US president Donald Trump might be funny (sometimes — whisper it — even deliberately so). My various inboxes were inundated with outraged and perplexed messages. 

“Please please stop saying he is funny?!” one reader wrote. “He represents the end of democracy and the rule of law in the US. That’s not so funny.”

I, too, am concerned about the threat that Trump poses to democracy and to law and order in the US, but that’s a totally different subject to how funny he can sometimes be. Calling someone funny might be a subjective opinion, but it is not a value judgment.

We need to be able to speak in honest and nuanced terms, even about those we view as the most pernicious and dangerous members of society. When we simply label them villains — particularly those who, like Brand and Trump, have large followings who already distrust the mainstream media — we are merely encouraging more division.

Peter Brian Barry, professor of philosophy at Saginaw Valley State University and author of The Fiction of Evil, tells me that our impulse to condemn is a kind of self-defence mechanism. “We tend to demonise people who we regard as morally unjust or vicious or corrupt because we really want to create distance between them and ourselves,” Barry says. “The more we can describe them in monstrous terms . . . the more confident we can be that we’re not like that.” None of us wants to admit that we have the ability to carry out evil deeds ourselves; it’s much more comfortable to dehumanise those that do.

In a black and white world, we don’t just need our villains to be purely evil; we need our heroes to be flawless too. I remember feeling deep disappointment when I read a long feature about my then-hero Barack Obama’s failure to close down Guantánamo Bay — the article placed much of the blame for this on the former president and his administration.

But hero worship, too, is dangerous: it suspends critical thinking, and can pave the way for charismatic demagogues and dictators. Witness Trump’s own fan base, who seem unwilling — or perhaps unable — to abandon him even while he gets indicted multiple times, whose unwavering belief in him led to the events of January 6 2021.

We are often told that we should never meet our heroes; their messy, imperfect humanness can only ever come as a bitter disappointment. We might have the same problem if we met those we have consigned to villainhood: they too are likely to be vexingly complex, multi-faceted, and in possession of the mélange of good and bad that we recognise all too well in ourselves.

jemima.kelly@ft.com

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