It’s a question that comes up when celebrities get themselves into trouble. Which happens often enough.
To start with, let me make it clear that I’m not talking about the legal side of the issue. At least twenty-three women have spoken out about varying degrees of molestation at the beloved comedian’s hands. Bill Cosby has (it seems) done things that make him liable to criminal and civil penalties. The law should take its course. You don’t get off because you’re a celebrity.
Instead I’m talking about the court of public opinion. As one CNN news story put it, “Cosby, 77, has never faced a judge or jury, let alone been convicted, over the allegations. But it’s clear many people have already tried him in their minds.”
To begin with, although current society is fascinated by celebrities, the role they actually play in our culture isn’t well understood.
We live in a society of strangers. We are no longer tribespeople or villagers whose acquaintance totals a few dozen people. Every day we see and deal with many individuals we will never see again. This is especially true in big cities and suburbs.
Even people we see every day are more or less strangers to us. How much do you know about the people you work with? Do you and they have any common acquaintances outside the workplace? What about your neighbors? I’ve lived for six years in the same middle-class suburb on the edge of the Chicago metropolis. I know some of my neighbors, but most of those who live around me are people I probably wouldn’t even recognize in most settings.
At the same time, we find ourselves interacting with these strangers in various ways, and we have to talk to them about something. One thing we all share is a familiarity with famous people—politicians, movie stars, singers, sports heroes, and so on. These celebrities provide a kind of common acquaintance that we can talk about with people with whom we otherwise have little to share.
But we have a very curious attitude toward these celebrities. We like to build them up and then tear them down again. Often they let themselves in for it by doing stupid, bizarre, or criminal things, but the vehemence we show (while enormous atrocities elsewhere in the world are going practically unnoticed) suggests that something else is going on.
When you think about it, even the celebrity you most abhor is in all likelihood someone who has never harmed you personally, if only because he has never met you. You may even realize that, from a purely personal point of view, you have had nothing but pleasure from his performances. But because he has been caught in a disgraceful act, you get satisfaction from despising him. You may even start to feel sincerely angry with him.
Some of this anger is due to envy. We live in a democratic, egalitarian society, where nobody is any better than anybody else (or so we tell ourselves). At the same time we want to have heroes to admire and look up to. These impulses are somewhat contradictory, and so it’s no surprise that they produce contradictory results—elevating the star, then tearing her down.
This process is also a way of cementing common values. To attack a celebrity who commits rape is, or seems to be, a way of condemning rape as a whole. Fair enough—but I really wonder if this kind of condemnation is really going to help prevent crimes like this in the future.
For some people, hostility toward public figures is also a way of displacing their anger onto some remote object. But there is something suspicious about this process. What are you really angry about? It would make more sense to look at this question in the context of your own life and take steps to remedy it—or accept the situation if there’s nothing else you can do.
Granted, there are a lot of people who looked up to Bill Cosby. They feel genuinely hurt that his behavior has been at such variance with his benign fatherly image. It’s always a danger you face with heroes—especially living ones. They often turn out to be different what you thought they would be—and more often than not, they’re worse. I suppose the lesson here is to be careful about whom you look up to—especially if they’re still alive and the book isn’t closed on their personal stories.
In one sense, then, this rush to revile Bill Cosby is understandable. He was held up as a hero and a role model, and he let a lot of people down. It would be hard if not impossible to excuse him of many of the things he’s done (assuming he really did them).
In the end, though, I don’t feel I can answer the question that I started with. Should we forgive Bill Cosby? Should we condemn him? Who is this “we” that we’re talking about—public opinion, society at large? Most of the time when people talk this way, they are inserting themselves into a (largely imagined) category of moral arbiters—whether or not they have any business to be there.
So, then, let me change the question: can I forgive Bill Cosby? I can and I will try to—because it’s in my own best interest to do so. It’s in my own best interest to stop upsetting myself and getting angry over things that are, in the end, none of my business. Whatever the truth of these charges, I personally wish Bill Cosby well—just as I wish his victims well. It’s for the sake of my own peace of mind.
Richard Smoley’s latest book, The Deal: A Guide to Radical and Complete Forgiveness, will be published in January 2015. His other works include The Dice Game of Shiva: How Consciousness Creates the Universe; Inner Christianity: A Guide to the Esoteric Tradition; and Conscious Love: Insights from Mystical Christianity. Richard is also editor of Quest magazine and Quest Books, both published by the Theosophical Society in America.