A friend recently posted an article on Facebook regarding the rape allegations against Bill Cosby. There are enough women who’ve come forward that are saying they were assaulted by him to make it look like more than just someone taking advantage of a celebrity. If these things are true then it looks like he’s done some very bad things in his life. If they’re not true then we’ll forever need to look skeptically at anyone claiming a celebrity has assaulted them. This isn’t just tabloid fluff.
There’s layer upon layer of consideration here. As usual I visit as many as I can think of. The first and most obvious is how I feel about rape. It’s unambiguously abhorrent. Rape converts a person with all of the value and potential that they bring into an, often disposable, object. It violates our most basic social mechanism; our ability to trust others to let us act in the ways we see fit and to experience the joy that this brings. In other words it converts trust into fear. For me, as a father, a grandfather and a friend, it transcends rational and becomes visceral; both pain and anger. I’ll just leave it at that. In my value system it doesn’t have any positives.
Given the significance, deciding how much I believe the allegations is no small matter. While some seem to like to get caught up in the euphoria of the crowd and media, I prefer to own my conclusions. We all have public and private personas that are to a greater or lesser extent compartmentalized. Over time it’s usually to a lesser extent as the boundaries wear thin. For a celebrity their business is their public persona. Bill Cosby has had more than one extremely well managed public persona over the course of his career1. The most recent seemed to bring a lot of good to our society. Public personas have the benefit for us of being public record. Pretty much everything done in that persona has been witnessed by large groups of people, have been recorded or both.
Private personas are another matter. These are the things that few have seen and little is recorded. To learn about them you often have had to have been there or have had to know someone who was. The rape allegations are about at least one of Bill Cosby’s private personas. We can only indirectly know what really happened. If only one woman had come forward it would have been a tough battle for her; her word against his and a planet full of people who’ve learned to trust him. But many women have come forward and there doesn’t seem to be any connection between them other than Bill Cosby. This tilts the story strongly in their favor. An argument is being made that it took a long time for them to come forward and that this should tilt the story back in Bill Cosby’s direction. Given that one of the accusers talked to a reporter (who didn’t do anything about it) in the early 1980s, perhaps they didn’t wait so long afterall 2. This can never be conclusive, but the weight isn’t in Bill Cosby’s favor at the moment.
The next layer of consideration is that from a social perspective Bill Cosby is a complex person. If the allegations are true then he did some very bad things, but he also brought a lot of joy into people’s lives and a positive influence for many others as well. Are the things that he said and did now bad because he behaved badly during some less public moments in his life or do those things stand on their own regardless of who delivered them? The laughs from the Bill Cosby show were enjoyed in the moment. It’s possible that they changed the lives of a few in ways that I can’t speculate on. Unfortunately after this thinking about Bill Cosby going forward may generate feelings other than joy and in a way this cancels those earlier moments out. The positive influence is another matter. For those that “own themselves” that influence remains positive because it changed the way that they think and behave. For others the positive influence he provided may have only tentatively constrained what they viewed as acceptable. There’s risk of them believing that they now have permission to behave badly. These are some of the extended consequences that come from the choices you make in your life.
There’s also the matter of how to think of Bill Cosby as a person. Few of us can claim that we didn’t do many foolish things in our younger days. If these allegations are true then it goes well beyond merely being foolish. All that being said, what kind of person is he now and how does this matter to me? As an extreme example, it kind of relates to trying to figure out how I should feel about the death penalty. Are people who have done really bad things hopeless and irredeemably dangerous or are they recoverable and able to add future value to our lives? Sometimes they are and sometimes they aren’t. In this case I don’t know enough, but the likelihood has been diminished.
To leap to a much more extreme layer, how should I think about this given the possible structure and nature of the universe? In some interpretations the universe was just created complete with memory and history. Nothing ever actually happened. It’s just that all the right bits are in the right places to make us believe there’s some continuity from some earlier time. Another interpretation is that there are an infinite number of universes. This means that all possible things that could have happened have happened in some universe. In some universe Bill Cosby never raped anyone, in some he did and never got caught, in some he did and did get caught soon after the fact, in some he was accused but the allegations were later proved to be false, and on and on. If this is true then what I’ve discovered is that I may just have been in the wrong universe at the wrong time. I’m pretty sure that I don’t know how to wrap what’s left of my head around that.
I do feel a sense of loss due to these events. Had I known more I may have chosen a different universe, but this is the one I ended up in. Why should it be easy when it can be hard.