Last week, a U.S district judge ordered that depositions given by Bill Cosby in a 2005 lawsuit be unsealed and made available for public consumption. It revealed that the one-time universally beloved and revered entertainer and comedian admitted to securing drugs with the ultimate goal of having sex with women who may have craved them. His lawyer refused to allow Cosby to answer a direct question as to whether he ever administered the drugs without the women’s consent.
Cosby’s accusers and critics took away from that exchange support of their view that he had indeed drugged unsuspecting women and raped them. Dozens of women have accused Cosby of sexual assault in incidents that stretch back to the ’70s.
My reaction to this sordid revelation as I am sure was the response from many other people throughout the world was one of revulsion and disgust. The latest news even prompted neo-soul singer and ardent defender Jill Scott to denounce the 78-year-old legendary comedian arguing that her initial faith and belief had been misguided and betrayed. Executive film and television producer Judd Apatow had been consistently critical in his denunciations of Cosby.
I wanted my initial reactions to be “say it isn’t so Mr. Cosby!” However, I have to be brutally honest and say that I was not all that surprised. In fact, given the disturbing level of deflection denial and double speak that Cosby and his legal team have engaged in, why should anyone have been? The fact is that this current Cosby saga is a tragedy of epic proportions. This is a man that so many people of all races and walks of life admired, looked up to and held up as a paragon of virtue. Indeed, his image had been so exemplary that the title “America’s dad” had been bestowed upon him by millions.
We have been shocked into reality like a jilted lover and forced to confront the sobering reality that the Heathcliff Huxtable, warm, loving, stern, competent, confident and mildly flawed father figure that many of us as teenagers and pre-teens tuned into NBC to watch on Thursday nights during the 1980s and early 90s was anything but. On the contrary, what has emerged is a man who embodied a Jekyll and Hyde persona. The celebrity in public presented a public profile of warmth, humor and grace. The private man’s manipulative, deceptive, sinister and predatory traits were obscured from an unsuspecting and now dumbfounded public.
As has been noted by many cultural pundits and commentators, the fact is that Cosby’s self-righteous, intellectually dishonest, callous, arrogant and acerbic “blaming the victim” comments toward those who were often on the receiving end of larger social maladies that have and continue to cripple large segments of society have made him the current victim of such stinging commentary. In fact, U.S. District judge Eduardo Robreno cited Cosby’s public stance of moral sermonizing and chastising others for their failings to live up to certain principles while he himself (Cosby) engaged in activities that were the antithesis of the moral codes he implored upon others was the reason for him granting permission to allow release of such graphic and compelling testimony. To be blunt and keeping it real, what Judge Robreno was saying is that “you are a damn hypocrite Mr. Cosby!”
Moreover, as a Black person who was born in the first half of the 20th century, prior to 1950, the product of a hyper-segregated America, in Philadelphia, under modest economic circumstances as Cosby did, should certainly be aware of the devastating impact that poverty, sophisticated and subtle discrimination and lack of access to the mainstream can have on those who are victims to such social inequities and inequalities. Economic and structural racism are undeniable factors in the lives of many poor people of color. Bill Cosby should know this. Instead of acknowledging such brutal facts, he resorted to espousing and promoting a dangerously misguided form of respectability politics that too often places the responsibility for change on those who are being disrespected. Perhaps decades of considerable wealth removed him from any semblance of reality.
To be sure, there are a number of public entertainers, comedians (especially those whose careers have not been even half as successful as Cosby’s) as well as private citizens of all races who are privately and, in some cases, publically taking delight in the destruction, demise and downfall of a comedic and entertainment icon. I am not among them. Schadenfreude is not a hobby of mine.
The amount of grief, heartache, public embarrassment and humiliation that Cosby has caused his wife, children, friends, and others in his inner circle has undoubtedly been indescribable. Moreover, to all those fans who did not know him personally, yet saw him as akin to their favorite teacher, lovable neighbor, wise uncle, their own biological father or other beloved figure, Cosby has disappointed them mightily.
While none of us is above criticism regardless of who we are, the fact is Cosby’s current predicament is a classic example of why all of us should tread with caution before we become too overly harsh in our judgment of others for what we perceive to be their shortcomings. We are all mortal human beings devoid of total perfection. Perhaps Bill Cosby should have heeded his own advice and behaved accordingly.
Elwood Watson, Ph.D. is a professor of History, African American Studies and Gender Studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the co-author of Beginning A Career in Academia: A Guide To Graduate Students of Color. (Routledge Press, 2014)