Comment of the Day: On Cosby, Clinton, And An Ethics Dunce Convention In Melbourne, Florida

Why can't a serial rapist be funny and cute?

Why can’t a serial rapist be funny and cute?

Frequent commenter aaronpaschal weighed in with this rich post on the Bill Cosby matter. I will hold my response to the end, because there is much to consider here, and much I disagree with. However, aaron has articulated well the thoughts many are having about the Cos, and I am grateful for the exposition. Here is his Comment of the Day regarding the post, On Cosby, Clinton, And An Ethics Dunce Convention In Melbourne, Florida.

I don’t know if I fully believe the allegations. I don’t know if the girls and women involved should bear some responsibility for choosing to become impaired. I don’t know if Cosby’s career will long survive this uproar – Netflix is dropping all of Cosby’s works in response, and that’ll cost someone a pretty penny.

But I do know that I don’t feel completely at ease with the notion that he faces ruin. That there is no evidence, no words, nothing he could present in his own defense. No courtroom, no trial, no lawyers. That the man who allegedly committed these acts did so a lifetime ago. I’ll admit that the women who have come out don’t have much tangibly to gain – but I also know all too well that revenge, hatred, defending existent lies, even merely time in the spotlight can be powerful motivators for some people (bearing in mind that pursuing justice, speaking the truth, and protecting the innocent are well – it could be any of them, all of them, or more.) There must, however, be SOME motive somewhere, or they would not be stepping forward – if there was truly nothing to gain.

But I do know that his works have always made me laugh, and I will appreciate them for years to come. I know I’ve heard wisdom from him, and these crimes don’t change the wisdom, either. I might not choose to leave my daughter alone with him. And I know that the court of public opinion makes very few wise choices, it is a terrible thing to be tried by it, guilty or innocent, and true justice is rarely found there.

I’m back.

Frankly, while I understand why an intelligent individual who isn’t immersed in the issues here wouldn’t believe the allegations, they really ought to be believed. They follow perfectly the pattern with longtime sexual harassers, and match precisely the progress of the workplace cases I have been involved in. The primary reasons not to believe them—that Cosby appears to be so admirable and benign, that he makes us laugh, that he is wise, that he has devoted his career to promoting family values—must be based on lack of knowledge of the very dark sides of many, many respected and loved celebrities through the decades, especially performers, and in that group, especially comedians. Cosby is certainly a spectacular example of the phenomenon, but he is not unusual.

Thirteen women independently telling essentially the same stories is awfully damning. [UPDATE: CNN reports that the total is now 16] It is damning that Cosby paid a settlement to one of them rather than seek vindication in court. It is damning that he has refused to issue a personal denial, rather than only speaking through lawyers. The greater likelihood is not that he is innocent, but that there are many more victims out there who are afraid to speak publicly.

The one statement in the Comment of the Day that I object to vociferously is this one, which I have heard before relating to Cosby: I don’t know if the girls and women involved should bear some responsibility for choosing to become impaired.”  Wait a minute: these aren’t cases of college women getting so drunk at a party that they can’t fend off a sexual assault, and even if it was, just as a rape victim’s irresponsible and reckless behavior in no way mitigates the conduct of her rapist, Cosby would deserve no quarter if his victims had been irresponsible either. But these were not instances of naive co-eds rendering themselves defenseless in the presence of horny, drunk frat boys! These were young actresses, models and aspiring employees in the presence of a famous and admired man they had every reason to trust, and he drugged them without their consent and knowledge. They bear no responsibility, and share no blame.

Aaron says, “[T] here is no evidence, no words, nothing he could present in his own defense.” Nonsense. He can begin by saying, “I didn’t do any of this. I would never do any of this. I will recount my recollection of the events each of my accusers have described to the extent that I can. I am innocent.” He hasn’t even done that. I suspect that he hasn’t done that because his lawyers have advised him that anything he says will be subject to a rebuttal, and may also prompt new victims to come forward.  That’s what I would advise him—if he were guilty.

“That the man who allegedly committed these acts did so a lifetime ago”-so what? Are his victims less abused and aggrieved because their betrayal and denigration occurred a long time ago? Why? Why is Cosby entitled to special considerations because he is really good at raping women and covering his tracks? A horrific wrongdoer can wipe the slate cleaner, if not clean, by admitting his deed, apologizing, and making amends. Cosby has done none of this, and if the accusations are true, he has been a walking, talking, lying hypocrite on a grand scale. His unethical conduct is ongoing, even if the rapes have stopped. (I’d also advise him: “Cool it with the hypnotic drugs and rapes, Bill, at least until this blows over.”)

The motives for the women coming forward are, I think, obvious. They were mistreated, and at the time had every reason to believe that their attacker was so powerful and beloved that they had no chance of being believed. At one time, maybe they felt that Cosby could help their careers: the casting couch, as well as its more sinister cousin, the raping couch, is still a standard accessory in Hollywood and show business generally. Now sexual abuse of women is better understood, more sympathetically treated in the news media and popular culture, and more likely to be taken seriously when reported.

Ethics Alarms has explored the centuries-old problem of separating artists, who are flawed, sometimes frighteningly flawed, human beings, from their art. I agree that they are two different things, and the art is not diminished by the character of the artist.  The same is true of philosophy, criticism and political thought: great idealists like Thomas Jefferson and Clarence Darrow often cannot rise to meet the standards they prescribe for mankind and society. That doesn’t invalidate their ideas, but it doesn’t relieve them of responsibility for their own conduct, either.

Performing artists are different, however. Their creations, which often include their public persona, are inextricably linked to their real selves, and thus they can corrupt us by using their talent to beguile us into to admiring not just their art, but them. I’m sorry, but I just can’t laugh at O.J. Simpson in the “Naked Gun” films anymore, and I’m not alone: those films have declined precipitously in popularity since we learned what an ugly character he was. I appreciate Frank Sinatra’s craft, but I don’t enjoy listening to him sing, just as I no longer can watch Woody Allen films, knowing that the endearing autobiographical distortion of himself Allen plays on screen masks an awful human being.

There is also the problem that these individuals, and Cosby, used their celebrity and the credibility, power and financial resources created by their art to avoid the consequences of their conduct. That alone is reason to take all of that away from them, to the extent possible, or at least not play a role in enhancing it.

Finally, I could not disagree more with the statement that “the court of public opinion makes very few wise choices… and true justice is rarely found there.” The court of public opinion is far from infallible, but given enough time, it usually gets it right. I think it is on the way to getting it right with Bill Cosby.



8 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: On Cosby, Clinton, And An Ethics Dunce Convention In Melbourne, Florida

  1. I’m faced with the same phenomenon I noticed in others under other such circumstances. You just don’t WANT to believe that someone you’ve admired and whose works you’ve enjoyed for so long would be capable of such despicable acts. But here’s where maturity must win out of juvenilism. You must look at the evidence and weigh it dispassionately on a moral, ethical and legal basis. You cannot reject it on a basis of emotion or misguided loyalty.

    Certainly, an accused man is to be allowed the benefit of a doubt. But when you see an old pattern being repeated (as you have so well pointed out, Jack) then this, too, must be placed in consideration.

    Too many entertainment figures have walked this path. Many have gotten away with it. Others have not. And, no doubt, many others exist in the shadows. A sense of justice and common decency demands that such persons pay in fall for their crimes.

    But first, there must be prosecutors willing to take the often tough step in dragging these persons into court. That has often proven the big bottleneck in the past and for a number of reasons; political, societal and just a simple lack of courage.

    • A sense of justice and common decency demands that such persons pay in fall for their crimes.

      the time to have made Cosby answer for these allegations was long ago.

      Have you ever wondered why we have statutes of limitations? Itg is because with old accusations, it is difficult to judge the facts- evidence gets cold, some of it becomes unusable. Leads get cold.

      • None of which is relevant here. Cosby can’t be prosecuted. That’s a separate issue completely. “The time to have made Cosby answer for these allegations was long ago” makes no sense whatsoever. The time for him to answer for them is any time up until he answers for them. There is no statute of limitations on decency and truth.

  2. I think you’re right that “the court of public opinion…is on the way to getting it right with Bill Cosby.” And I share Steven Mark Pillings’ sadness at a flawed human being revealed for much more ugliness than we thought, given his persona.

    But, as you say, this shouldn’t be confused with the question of doubt about whether it happened, or speculations about responsibility. Yeah, sure, he’s innocent until proven guilty – in a court of law. In the court of human psychology, pretty conclusive verdicts are much more readily available.

    You can bet on a few facts about human decency, except for all but the purely sociopathic. One is that people feel remorse about murder. Most violent shooters have the decency to save the last shot for themselves – at least they retain the sense of having sinned in their evil-doing.

    The other is that – again, excepting sociopaths – there is an inborn reluctance to flat-out lie. The one thing that convinced me of Lance Armstrong’s guilt was his continued blitzkrieg of PR which always lacked a critical statement – “I never took performance-enhancing drugs.” Right.

    And as you point out, in the absence of a Cosby statement saying, “I didn’t do any of this,” I don’t have any hesitation in concluding that where there’s human smoke, there’s human fire.

    It’s still a shame. But no point in whitewashing it either.

  3. I’m pretty much sticking my head in the sand on this one. I have fond memories of Cosby’s humor, and I don’t need to obliterate them with a shot of stark reality. Also, there’s a long history of smearing black men as sexual predators, and I hate they idea of all the racists getting an “I told you so!” out of this. I realize that’s not exactly the high road, but I’m comfortable with my approach because (a) my reluctance to confront the issue is in no way a defense of Cosby, and (b) my feelings about the matter have absolutely no consequences.

    That said, Cosby’s refusal to deny the accusations seems devastating. I normally wouldn’t give that any weight because remaining silent when accused of a crime is just the smart thing to do, since anything you say can be used against you. But as I understand it, Cosby is beyond the reach of criminal law because of the statute of limitations. He could confess to a dozen rapes back then, and the law couldn’t lay a hand on him now. If I’ve got that right, then the lack of legal consequences wipes out his legal tactical reason for remaining silent.

    The other legitimate reason for not denying accusations is that a public figure like Cosby has no obligation to the public to counter every random accusation, any more than you have an obligation to respond to every critical comment on this blog. But that reason doesn’t hold up when we’re talking about accusations of rape from more than a dozen people. He probably shouldn’t try to respond to every accusation, but he ought to respond to the worst one ever.

    And damn, that’s a lot of women.

    • Well said, Mark, and I sympathize with your first point.
      Apparently there are a few states where the statute of limitations have no limit on rape, but I don’t think Bill is in any jeopardy from any of them in practical terms.

      • All it takes is one hammer-head state’s attorney in some state full of those whose harsh winters have frozen their brains, and there you are. Larry Flynt was dragged to a state to which someone had brought a copy of his magazine, and we all know how well that turned out for (a) the US First Amendment (b) his ability to walk about.

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