Matthew Rozsa meditates on the downfall of Cosby and the rise of the new integrity.
Let’s talk about the concept of integrity.
Since this is an article about Bill Cosby, an influential comedian, it seems appropriate to start with a quote from one of the most influential theatrical comedies in Western literature—the French play Tartuffe (1664).
If everyone were clothed with integrity, if every heart were just, frank, kindly, the other virtues would be well-nigh useless.
Exactly 350 years later, we have witnessed Cosby using “integrity” in a markedly different way from his comic forebear. After a reporter from the Associated Press asked him about credible rape accusations being made against him by more than a dozen women, Cosby was heard pressuring the producers to “scuttle” the footage of him replying to the question.
The grounds? He appealed to their integrity. In fact, he did this three times:
I don’t want to compromise your integrity, but I don’t talk about it.
I know I didn’t say anything, but I’m asking your integrity that, since I didn’t want to say anything, but I did answer you … Of what value will it have?
We thought AP had the integrity to not ask.
It should be noted now that no prior agreement had been made prohibiting the AP from inquiring about the allegations or declaring any of the footage as “off the record.” If anything, the AP comes across rather shamefully in their handling of the situation, offering obsequious reassurances as Cosby threw his weight around. Yet when Cosby appealed to the AP by challenging their integrity, he was successful—at least until, as Amanda Hess from Slate pointed out, the AP decided it made better business sense to risk their integrity than to honor a disgraced man’s request.
Instead of dwelling on that rich irony, let’s examine why Cosby was able to succeed in the first place.
Before exploring the literal definition of the word “integrity” (a feat I’ve reserved for the end of this editorial, with good reason), we need to examine how it has been used on other recent occasions. Even if one narrows our search to highly-publicized sex scandals, it has appeared with alarming regularity: See the application to Coach Joe Paterno, the leader of Penn State’s football team for nearly half a century, who decided that it would be better to not tell the police about a credible report that one of his assistants was engaging children in acts “of a sexual nature” (his own words) to preserve the integrity of the university’s legendary athletic program. We can also look at the Roman Catholic Church, which concealed cases of child molestation perpetrated by priests across the world to preserve the integrity of the world’s largest centrally-organized religious institution.
Have you noticed the common theme? If not, here are some other sentences Cosby uttered to the AP:
No, no, we don’t answer that.
There’s no response.
There is no comment about that.
I think if you want to consider yourself to be serious that it will not appear anywhere.
We thought, by the way, because it was AP, that it wouldn’t be necessary to go over that question with you.
The message is always the same—your integrity depends on respecting the reputation of an institution, even if it conflicts with the truth … even if it conflicts with the law. It’s noteworthy that Cosby’s first appeal to “integrity” actually recognized the other aspect of integrity. Before asserting that he was refusing to talk about the rape allegations, Cosby threw out that he didn’t “want to compromise your integrity, but …” At that moment, he realized that the honorable thing for the AP to do was find the truth—to hold the institution of Bill Cosby accountable. If the AP had had integrity, that is what it would have done.
It would be almost unfair to single out Cosby, Paterno, and the Catholic Church—they’re simply three of the most conspicuous examples. One scandal waiting to burst is the rampant sexual exploitation of children in Hollywood, as most recently manifested in the revelations about Stephen Collins and Bill Cosby and which was hinted at by Corey Feldman after the suicide of Corey Haim. There is also the NFL and its abysmal handling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse allegations, about which much has already been written, or the fact that we’ve had so many government scandals in the last forty years that the suffix ‘-gate’ has entered every day vernacular.
There are two major links behind all these examples: (1) They represented what was long assumed to be a virtuous manifestation of “establishment” ideals in various sectors of American life (in religion, athletic competition, show business, government, etc.); and (2) their downfall was linked to well-known and respected authority figures redefining integrity as involving the protection of an institution instead of adhering to Moliere’s idea of simply being “just, frank, kindly.” Make no mistake about it, Bill Cosby was as much an institution as Penn State or the Catholic Church—not only as an all-American comedy legend in the same vein as Will Rogers or Bob Hope, but as the spokesman for a set of conservative ideas about African-American culture (see his famous “Pound Cake” speech) and as an extremely generous philanthropist.
That institution has been reduced to rubble, and in many ways it is because the concept of integrity as loyalty to an institution that Cosby cited to the Associated Press is dying out. At some point there was a shift in the zeitgeist, no doubt facilitated by the growth of mass communications media like television and the Internet. Integrity, a word derived from a Latin root (integer) which connoted “sense of ‘wholeness, perfect condition,’” now is defined in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values.”
There is another 17th century French author who offered some bon mots that could be seen as apropos of this trend in 21st-century American culture. “Hypocrisy,” wrote Francois de La Rochefoucauld, “is the homage vice pays to virtue.” Future Cosby-like icons would do well to understand that we live in a culture increasingly capable of exposing these hypocrisies. In the past, we may have looked the other way, but now we define integrity as showing compassion for those who need it, not for protecting the reputations of the rich and powerful. This is the future, and until leaders and celebrities realize this, we’re going to see a lot more stories like this one.