02 December 2014
Unless you're a Tibetan monk, you're likely aware that a number of women have publicly accused actor-comedian Bill Cosby of sexual assault. I'm not going to rehash the particulars of the (alleged) incidents—because there are countless websites out there with the latest salacious details for your reading enjoyment. At any rate, you've probably already made up your mind whether you think Cosby is guilty or not—and chances are it has less to do with concrete evidence (which none of us spectators has access to) than a permutation of other irrelevant factors, including but not limited to:
(1) whether or not you liked Bill Cosby before you heard about the accusations;
(2) your pop-psych assessment of the accusers' motives and/or believability;
(3) your tendency to view sexual assault as a crime that the victim has more or less agency in preventing;
(4) your general attitude toward celebrity itself and its morally degenerative effects;
and (5) your gut feeling, irrespective of rational considerations.
Let's be frank here. None of the items listed above has anything to do with the facts in the case. (I refer to it as a 'case' only in the colloquial sense. There is no litigation pending.) Some of the items may have relevance to overall trends in sexual assault, but none has any specific relevance to Cosby's actual guilt or innocence in these specific matters.
I think we all instinctively know this. But we're also humans, and humans judge. Often judgment isn't even a fully conscious effort; sometimes through an almost instantaneous accretion of feelings, thoughts, and ingrained attitudes, we arrive at a 'sense' that someone is good or bad—innocent or guilty. There is nothing essentially wrong with this instinct; but whether we actually do anything based on this 'sense' is another thing altogether, and it implies a certain moral responsibility—either to speak out or to remain silent.
This brings me to what I want to talk about with respect to the case of Bill Cosby. It's a question that's remained largely neglected in the rush to condemn or to defend him:
What are we supposed to 'do with' this information about Bill Cosby?
When I say 'we' I mean those of us who don't know him or the accusers—the people on the sidelines for whom the scandal is merely a midday diversion on Facebook or a news website.
I know that it sounds like a funny (and perhaps cynical) question to ask, but I mean it in all sincerity. When we're told that a bunch of people have been sexually assaulted by an individual, it seems to demand some sort of response—but to respond is also to fall into the trap of gossip-mongering or passing judgments peremptorily—without the benefit of any information or evidence that might make us qualified to judge. (That itself sounds absurd—as if somebody asked us to bring our wisdom to bear and render a verdict.)
We live in a nation where one is (supposedly) innocent until proven guilty. But that's only the legal ideal. In our heart of hearts, surely we're allowed to come to whatever conclusions we want because we don't have the power or moral responsibility of sentencing someone... right? But then again—isn't a ruined reputation a sentence of its own?
On the other hand, it feels reprehensible to hear these accusations and to shrug one's shoulders, as if to say, 'Oh, well. I don't have any special insight into the incidents or the people involved, so I'll just ignore it. What else can I do?' Doesn't that validate the age-old argument against reporting sexual assault in the first place: Nobody will believe the accuser (or possibly even care), so what's the point?
I realize this all may sound like navel-gazing and utter self-absorption. People are, after all, dealing with sexual assault (or, alternately, are being accused unjustly of it), and here I am, fretting about how I should 'feel' about it. Poor baby. Other people are actually contending with a reality that I can't positively ascertain, and I'm busy wringing my hands and saying, 'But what about me?'
It's just that when we receive this kind of news it appears that we have three general choices: (1) We can believe the accusers and condemn Cosby. (2) We can believe Cosby and condemn the accusers. (3) Or we can stake out some neutral ground wherein we try to ignore the whole mess altogether or stow away our feelings about it as irrelevant.
None of these three responses is terribly satisfying—especially to someone who is concerned both with the prevalence of sexual assault and the uninformed rush to judgment that the media often encourages.
Is it okay if I watch The Cosby Show? Don't worry. I won't. I never really liked it—or Bill Cosby. But hypothetically speaking, what does it mean to watch The Cosby Show today—or to go to one of his stand-up performances? All these actions seem to become ideologically freighted in the wake of these allegations, and saying or doing nothing too closely resembles apathy.
I think that understanding the moral difficulty of responding to scandals like these—either by supporting the accused (i.e., buying his 'product'—whatever it might be) or rejecting him and his art totally—is a prerequisite to a compassionate and intelligent reckoning with the issue at hand—but anything after that is pure guesswork.