The evil behind Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski: Can we overcome our long, painful history of rape and power?

No one can ignore the truth about Bill Cosby now -- and it might help us face the moral darkness of our past

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 1, 2015 4:00PM (EDT)

  (AP/Michael Probst/Matt Rourke/The History Channel/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Michael Probst/Matt Rourke/The History Channel/Photo montage by Salon)

This week’s extraordinary cover story by reporter Noreen Malone and photographer Amanda Demme in New York magazine, in which 35 women come forward to accuse Bill Cosby of rape or sexual assault – in considerable and often wrenching detail -- ought to dispel the last shreds of doubt or ambiguity around the legendary comedian. To protect our proprietors and shareholders, journalists are still required to describe the charges against Cosby as unproven allegations, especially since he will almost certainly never face prosecution for any of them. I'm going to abide by those rules for those reasons, although they're clearly ridiculous. None of the excuses or rationalizations floated over the years by Cosby’s defenders seem remotely sustainable in the face of all that overwhelming first-person testimony.

Given that the known number of Cosby accusers now approaches four dozen (11 more women were interviewed by New York’s reporters but declined to be identified), it requires either prodigious imagination or a prodigiously low opinion of women to suggest that they were all cases of misinterpretation or drunken consensual sex or conspiracy to blackmail or shameless promiscuity or sociopathic distortion of reality. If anyone in this terrible story has a distorted perception of reality, it isn’t the women who have spent years or decades struggling with the fact that they had been shamefully abused by an iconic and beloved celebrity.

But Bill Cosby is just one person, depraved as he may be, and the thorny moral questions posed by the slow and dreadful unraveling of his public persona as America’s dad go well beyond him. This might sound like an antiquated conception, but the whole Cosby story offers an opportunity for tremendous moral education and clarification to everyone in our society, I think, because the whitewashing of Cosby’s alleged crimes was a collective cultural phenomenon. That moment ought to have particular resonance for men and for members of the media, who have long observed a half-conscious code of silence when it came to male public figures, have often viewed the testimony of women as inherently unreliable, and have often lured themselves into a theological understanding of sexual consent as a profound mystery understood only by God.

But our moment of moral clarity will only pay benefits if we’re honest about the things we still don’t understand. Some questions have now been answered in the Cosby story, but other, bigger ones loom ahead. These are all interconnected, but we can start by describing them separately. How widespread is this kind of behavior among prominent and powerful men? Are there numerous other examples of male celebrities who have repeatedly abused women (or men, for that matter), but who have been more successfully insulated by layers of intimidation and money? Why was Cosby protected so assiduously by so many people for so long, when in retrospect the truth has been visible for years? Last comes a question that may seem peripheral but I think is fundamental: Why is Bill Cosby apparently convinced that he is not a rapist?

Now I’m going to turn those questions around, because the answer to that last one is easy (if profoundly uncomfortable) and because it leads to a greater understanding of the others. Some people have speculated, in the wake of this overwhelming wave of similar anecdotes, that Cosby may suffer from mental illness, or a pathological state of denial in which he does not remember or understand his own actions. I wouldn’t know, but it doesn’t have to be that complicated. Bill Cosby doesn’t think he’s a rapist because, under the terms of his own moral code, he is not a rapist.

I know exactly how that sounds. To be clear, I am not saying that the difference between right and wrong is purely a question of interpretation, and that Cosby is entitled to his own definition of rape. I'm saying that he is a product of a particular historical understanding of human sexuality and the essential nature of male-female relations, which is now widely seen as unacceptable but which continues to plague us. He is not the only person who is profoundly confused about these shifting codes and meanings, and that confusion represents a much larger problem. I’m also saying that we boil these questions down to unchanging absolutes about right and wrong at our peril; if we attempt to deny that morality is a mutating social process rather than an inflexible set of laws, we are likely to miss the most important lessons of the Cosby story.

These questions of perception and definition come up repeatedly in the first-person accounts of Cosby accusers compiled for that New York story. Malone observes that in his infamous “Quaalude deposition,” responding to the 2005 assault allegations made by Andrea Constand, "Cosby seemed confident that his behavior did not constitute rape." He depicted himself instead as a rakish womanizer who was deeply attuned to "people and their emotions in these romantic sexual things." In many cases the survivors of Cosby’s alleged assaults did not understand what had happened to them as rape until much later. In the words of Joan Tarshis, who says that Cosby raped her in 1969, "Back then, rape was done in an alleyway with somebody holding a knife to your throat that you didn’t know." But the shifting legal and cultural understanding of rape, and the decades of feminist struggle that introduced unfamiliar concepts like date rape and marital rape into everyday usage (along with the fact that most rape victims know their assailants), are only one aspect of our agonizingly slow moral evolution.

Bill Cosby is not an isolated case or an anomaly. I don’t just mean that movie stars and tycoons and politicians have done the same things he allegedly did (or worse) as far back as we can see, although that’s clearly true too. Many people in Hollywood will tell you privately that the reason film-industry insiders were not more exercised by the case of Roman Polanski was that it did not strike anyone as unusual or especially egregious, at least compared to other stories they had heard from the rumor mill. In this reading, Polanski got caught for doing something once that Cosby has allegedly done dozens of times: Drugging a young woman into insensibility and raping her. To conclude the Hollywood-insider narrative, Polanski was a confused European whose wife had recently been murdered and who simply didn’t understand how the game was played. If he had gotten hold of the right lawyer and the right fixer the next day and written a sufficiently large check, it would have been just another ugly secret swept under the showbiz carpet.

I’m not offering this as a defense for his crime, but one thing we can say about Polanski is that at least he understood he had done something wrong. Cosby’s apparent defiance or moral blindness look especially alarming in the contemporary context, which is one of the few aspects of this story that is genuinely encouraging. Those 35 women who came forward in solidarity have used their stories of personal trauma to shine a light on the path we are traveling, a long and painful evolutionary process in the moral, legal and physical relationship between men and women. We no longer define female human beings as the property of their fathers and husbands, or as a subordinate caste with some but not all of the attributes of citizenship. But those are extremely recent changes in terms of human history, and to put it mildly they are not universally accepted in all quadrants of our society or all parts of the world. As with the story of the quest for racial justice in America, the principle of legal equality for women, although it was critically important, was quite likely the easy part.

Those of us raised in the liberal West in the aftermath of the Enlightenment may wish to understand certain moral truths as self-evident, to borrow the revolutionary phrase of slave-owning hypocrite Thomas Jefferson. History sits there grinning, with blood on its claws, suggesting that such sanctimony is misplaced. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the white dudes who signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776 weren’t quite sure whether the “inalienable rights” enumerated by Jefferson were meant to encompass all of humanity or just those individuals endowed by their Creator with specific characteristics of skin tone and gender assignment (not to mention Virginia tobacco acreage). A few of the more foresighted among them accurately perceived that the interpretation of that phrase was likely to cause major problems down the line for their newborn republic.

If we could clamber into our time machine with a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and go tell a 10th-century Viking raider, or a Greek warrior of the Homeric period, that it was morally unacceptable to rape the women in the cities he pillaged and burned, how do you suppose that would go? No concept of universal human rights or citizenship would have been remotely comprehensible to that person, still less any notion that women could determine their own destiny. (If our time machine had any integrity, it would strip us of those ideas during the journey, since they would be likely to get us killed.) It would be grossly inaccurate, however, to suggest that those societies lacked a sense of morality. If we told Achilles or Erik the Red that it was cruel to rape the women after eviscerating their husbands and children, they would enthusiastically agree: Cruelty was generally understood in those cultures as a virtue that exemplified valor and fearlessness.

We have indeed come a long way since then, although I see no prospect that the process of moral evolution can ever reach a conclusion. You can argue the Jeffersonian position that absolute moral standards do exist, even if human society has barely begun to comprehend them or put them into practice. (In other words, rape and torture and marrying your siblings have always been wrong, but for millions of years we simply didn't know it.) Or you can take the darker view of 20th-century philosophy, which suggests that morality can only be a cultural, conditional and contextual process. Either way we arrive at the same conclusions about Bill Cosby: He was or is trapped in an outdated moral artifice, one shaped by a long, lingering legacy of misogyny and violence in which men understood themselves as predators and women as prey. He doesn't think he's a rapist; he thinks he's doing what guys have always done. In order to grasp the moral lessons of the Cosby story, we have to face the fact that he's right about that second part, while also insisting that it's no longer a valid excuse.

We look at Bill Cosby now and express understandable shock and outrage, but after that we might do well to take a long look in the mirror and think about how and why we permitted him to hurt so many women over so many years. We are all heirs to that long tradition of sexual violence to a greater or lesser extent, and have all been shaped by its ideological and psychological effects. (As I understand it, this is pretty much what is meant by the controversial feminist term "rape culture.") On some level – conscious for some people but unconscious for most – we didn't want to face the truth about Cosby's alleged crimes because it raised too many unresolved fears and unanswered questions.

When I say that Bill Cosby is not alone, that’s what I'm talking about. He is an extreme example of a diabolical dilemma that affects literally everyone and all aspects of human life. It is one thing to agree that women can vote and own property and hold citizenship, even if the legal equality of women remains an extremely contentious matter that is unevenly applied. It is quite another matter to move past the long history of our species, in which women were prized possessions or unpaid servants or the spoils of war – in which rape was understood as the natural order of things (if it was even understood as rape) – and toward an understanding of women as the moral equals of men, as sexual free agents and as the authors and subjects of their own stories. By coming together and speaking out, Bill Cosby’s accusers have offered us a startling moment of clarity, and have brought us a step or two closer to that goal.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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