April 29, 2018

It is Okay to Feel Conflicted About Bill Cosby

The World Affairs Council and Girard College present Bill Cosby (6343673881) (cropped to Cosby)I think it makes sense that many people have mixed feelings about Bill Cosby and his recent conviction on felony sexual assault charges. We can be happy to see this sad story come to an end, happy to see Cosby's accusers prevail in court, happy that he's not getting away with his crimes due to his celebrity, happy that he'll almost certainly be spending what is left of his life in prison, and so on. At the same time, we can be sad to see that someone of his stature could have so many serious flaws, sad that his legacy is forever tarnished, sad that we've been severely disappointed by one of our childhood heroes, sad for his victims, and more. The important point is that we can feel all of these ways simultaneously.

When I think back to the Cosby I remember as a child, I have nothing but fond memories. I remember the first time I heard one of his comedy albums at a friend's house. I thought it was fantastic. Even as a child, I noticed that he worked clean and couldn't help but admire that he could be so funny without all the profanity. I didn't have to hide his stuff from my parents! I remember loving The Cosby Show and noticing how it influenced the racial attitudes of those around me. As young as I was at the time, I was old enough to notice that some of those around me who had previously expressed racist views stopped doing so after watching a few episodes of his show. I remember one friend admitting that Cosby's show had shattered his negative stereotypes of Blacks in such a way that he realized, "They are just like us." While that seems obvious now, it was not so obvious to a child who had been raised by racist parents and was living in an area where he rarely encountered Blacks.

Now that I see what Cosby has been up to more recently, there is no denying that my impressions of him are far less positive than they used to be. None of my fond childhood memories change that. What he did was despicable, and it is now part of how I view him. At the same time, I'm not inclined to devalue all of Cosby's contributions because of what we now know about him. I can (and do) have a very negative impression of him as a person (i.e., he's a rapist) while still valuing his contributions from all those years ago. This capability and willingness is an important aspect of freethought. I don't need to let my outrage at Cosby convince me that everything he's ever done is now worthless, and I don't need to let my fondness for his work diminish my outrage at his criminal behavior.

Some people have great difficulty separating the person from the person's work, and we've seen that again and again among atheists and skeptics. Someone we admire falls hard, and some will quickly insist that everything this person has ever produced is now invalid. This has never made any sense to me. A great scientist who wrote a book that influenced countless people in positive ways may well turn out to be a monster, but that does not negate his or her contributions. And yes, the contributions of this great scientist should also not lead any of us to conclude that he or she is any less of a monster than his or her behavior would indicate. Two things can be true at the same time.

I think that Bill Cosby may present us with such a case. He positively influenced the world in many ways. That does not mean he wasn't still a monster. His positive contributions do not justify us refusing to condemn his behavior, and his behavior does not justify us refusing to acknowledge his contributions.