December 3, 2014
I never much liked Bill Cosby, but that doesn’t matter now. The fact that he’s a smug, moralizing scold who made a second career of publicly shaming marginalized black people now seems like a harmless pastime, a lark, compared to what he’s allegedly been up to since at least the ‘70s. No, it doesn’t matter that I don’t care for Cosby’s politics, or his even comedy, because Bill Cosby was so omnipresent in the culture I grew up in that it was years before it even occurred to me to form an opinion about him. He wasn’t some fleeting pop artifact, like a song or a movie, that we were invited to pass judgement on. He was an icon, a fact of American life. And because he was so much a part of us, he was deemed good.
I guess that’s why, despite my lukewarm feelings about Cosby generally, I’m following this story almost obsessively, scanning headlines daily, waiting for the next accuser to come forward. I’m not tuning in for the voyeuristic thrill—I worked in domestic violence advocacy for nine years, and heard enough horror stories to last me a lifetime and more. I am riveted by the spectacle of Cosby’s misdeeds because the spectacle is us, we’re all players in this drama, too.
Yesterday there was another horrifying allegation. This one involves drugs, a minor and the Playboy Mansion, just in case America still hasn’t gotten the point. Heathcliff Huxtable is dead, and in his place stands a felonious, predatory creep. A creep we’ve given aid and shelter all these years, deliberately looking away from the mounting pile of evidence, closing our ears to the rising chorus of accusing voices.
People are offering all sorts of reasons for why it took us so long to see a truth that in hindsight seems obvious: race, political correctness,sexism (and an apparently overpowering affection for pudding and middlebrow TV shows) all are blamed. While those things definitely play a role, I think the real reason we denied this horror for so long is the same reason we reflexively look away from any terrible thing: we can’t quite bring ourselves to contemplate what the terrible things says about us. If we look too closely, we run the risk of seeing ourselves reflected in the predator’s eyes, of seeing our beliefs played out the deviant’s shameful acts.
We made this man. As surely as Bill Cosby shaped our popular culture, we had a hand in his creation. We validated his particularly toxic brand of masculinity every step of the way; we cultivated the environment of permissiveness and entitlement that allowed him to terrorize women for decades. What’s worse, we made all the other rapists batterers and child abusers who cause so much pain and cost us so much. Is it any wonder we’d rather look away? We’re ashamed.
Left unchecked, this is the kind of man our culture creates. Not all the time, of course, but often enough to constitute a serious social problem in itself. People don’t like to hear it said plainly, but there’s something inherent to the way we socialize men that leads, far more frequently than we should accept, to aggression, violence and a downright sinister lack of empathy. A fatal inability to see other people—particularly female people—as fully human. Women are, instead, territories to conquer, obstacles to be gotten around, objects to acquire.
We’re doing something wrong, we have to be. The answer can’t just be that the Cosbys and Charlie Sheens and Mel Gibsons of the world are evil anomalies, terrible people somehow born wanting to rape and humiliate and abuse. Somewhere along the line we’re teaching them to do those things, and we’ll never figure out where we’re going wrong until we allow ourselves to look them fully in the face, and admit that we can see ourselves looking back.
The first step toward some real, workable answers to our masculinity problem (because that’s what our definition of masculinity has become, a problem) is to stop demonizing perpetrators. Whether they’re rapists or pedophiles or that dude you saw screaming at his wife in the Safeway parking lot, they are people, and pretty unhappy ones at that.
When we fail to take responsibility for our role in the messes they make, when we refuse to try to empathize with them because it’s easier and less painful to just send them to jail, we’re letting these men down as much as we’re letting down their victims. Most importantly, we’re letting ourselves down, by setting ourselves up to create more Cosbys and Charlies and Mels to abuse and exploit future generations of women. We have to embrace our monsters, to invite them in and care for them enough to understand them,or they’ll be our undoing. I never did like Bill Cosby, but now seems like a good time to try to learn to love him.