The Benedict Cumberbatch Fake Controversy

by Benjamin Studebaker

In a display of just how spectacularly indifferent the contemporary social justice movement is to issues of inequality, there is now a backlash against British actor Benedict Cumberbatch (from The Hobbit, Sherlock Holmes, and the Imitation Game) for using the word “colored” when making an argument in favor of racial equality. Yes, you read that right. We now care more about which words people use to make their arguments than we do about what is being argued. Activists now care more about making sure everyone uses the approved vernacular than they do about achieving justice for the victims of inequality. This preoccupation with going after individuals (especially famous celebrities) for using the wrong words to say the right things is indicative of everything that is wrong with the left today. Here’s why.

First, here’s your obligatory clickbait picture of Benedict Cumberbatch:

Here’s what the man said:

I think as far as coloured actors go, it gets really different in the UK, and a lot of my friends have had more opportunities here [in the US] than in the UK, and that’s something that needs to change…Something’s gone wrong, we’re not representative enough in our culture of different races and that really does need to step up a pace.

This sounds like a pretty standard left wing view. There’s too much race/class/gender/sexuality inequality in our society, and we should give more opportunities to those who currently get the short end of the stick. How nice that a straight white affluent male actor would speak up for that cause.

But wait–who are “those who currently get the short end of the stick”? What do we call them? They’re clearly not exclusively black–presumably leftists also think Hispanic, Middle Eastern, Indian, Native American, and East Asian actors and actresses are underrepresented. Are they “non-white”? No, that would define them by what they are not, rather than what they are. “Ethnic”? That would imply that white people are somehow above ethnicity. “Ethnic minority”? Too similar to “ethnic”. “BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic)? No, that gives blacks and Asians higher billing than other groups. “Racial minority”? What about different ethnicities that are part of the same race? “Colored people”? That implies that white isn’t a color. “People of color” does the same thing.

We can play this game all day. It’s a stupid game. It’s predicated on the false assumption that these little connotations and nuances matter. They don’t matter. It makes no difference which term people use as long as the idea that’s being expressed is a good one. Activists play these word games so they can single out who is and who isn’t part of the “in” group, the group of very serious people who take social justice issues very seriously and demonstrate this by always–always–using the preferred nomenclature, which they change every couple of years to keep the riffraff out. It’s like a little club password. And if you should fail to get the password right? Woe unto you, because the social justice club will dismiss whatever you have to say and accuse you of not engaging with the issues seriously enough, of not talking to enough of the right people. Said Joseph Harker in The Guardian:

The other main groups who still use the word coloured are those who never mix with racial minorities, and those who have little interest in discussions on race. Cumberbatch almost certainly fits into one of these.

This is what “callout” culture is all about. When individuals use the wrong words or express the wrong ideas, Twitter activists think they act in the interest of justice by naming and shaming those individuals. They do no such thing. Instead, they shut down productive discussion. They stop conversations about race before they begin. And they create strong incentives for every person who is not thoroughly steeped in the social justice club’s vernacular to just avoid touching the subject altogether. Inequalities become something that many people cannot talk about without risking a public shaming, so they just stop talking about it. But just because they’re not talking about it doesn’t mean they’re not acting on what they believe, opposing candidates and policies that would help make our society more equal. If we want to make meaningful change, we need people from all walks of life to engage with inequality as an issue and a topic. We need people to support comprehensive, meaningful policies that will make lives better and opportunities more equal. This will not happen if the social justice movement continues to care more about its sense of self-righteousness than it does about convincing ordinary people that change is needed. Alienation, shame, and fear are tools of exclusion, not engagement.

Benedict Cumberbatch is a generally well-liked, popular actor. He expressed an idea that leftists should easily be able to get behind. He makes a great spokesperson for that idea, and the left should embrace his view and call attention to the truth in what he has said. Instead, it has tried to use him to shame people out of using the word “colored”, as if the right word would change our societies’ laws and policies. It should go without saying, but life is not like Peter Pan. We can’t get rid of racial inequalities by saying “BAME” or “people of colored” over and over again any more than we can bring people back from the dead by saying “I do believe in fairies, I do, I do”.

We need to call for new laws and new policies and make good, compelling arguments for those laws and policies. We need to engage with different ideas instead of shaming the individuals who have acquired them through their upbringing and life experiences, experiences that we as a society forged together. We need to get off our high horses and engage with the public. Down with the blogs, Tweets, and Tumblrs dedicated to shame and acrimony. The left is meant to be about understanding and empathy. It’s meant to be about acknowledging that no one gets to be what they are alone, that everyone is worthy of compassion. Not just the poor and the mistreated, but everyone. Even the conservatives, the reactionaries, the people who don’t see the problems. Let alone the people who do see the problems, who are willing to help us solve the problems, but who happen to use different words when talking about them.

But it won’t happen, and do you know why? Because shame is a business. There are legions of people out there now who get paid money to write columns about social justice issues. Most of the time, they can’t think of anything useful to say, so they find some honest attempt by a non-professional to contribute in an honest way to the discussion, and they trash it. They shame the person, scold the person for not reading the same books, using the right words, or spending time with the right people. There’s usually at least one and sometimes several of these columnists at every liberal newspaper and every liberal magazine. They are paid to hurt the quality of our discourse, and they are paid to do this because readers love shaming and blaming, they lap it up. It’s entertainment. And that’s why I said at the top of this piece that most social justice writers don’t really care about social justice. They don’t–not in any serious way. They care about getting paid, and they’re paid to mock and jeer at the unfortunate lay people who are only trying to answer interviewers’ questions honestly without becoming objects of international scorn.

It’s not their fault that this is a job that exists for which one can be paid. Too many people just get too much joy out of picking on others (especially famous others) for saying the “wrong” things. But as long as our political system relies on the average person supporting efforts to reform and correct our inequalities, the ideas these columnists express will only make these efforts more difficult. They will only further deepen our divides, our sense of alienation from one another. This makes me sad, but the fact that this is done in the name of social justice, in the name of equality and of political leftism makes me angry. We live in disappointing times.