Opinions and emotions clash over Bill Cosby.
For the last few days, I’ve been haunted by a months-old article about Toni Morrison published by The Guardian and penned by Hermione Hoby. The piece considers Morrison’s lofty stature as “the conscious of America,” an acknowledgement gracing Morrison — perhaps as a necklace, perhaps as a noose — for her body of work’s fearless gaze upon American racism with what Hoby describes as a “steadiness of rage and compassion.”
For me, the rage comes easily — a gnarled bat resting on my shoulder like bluebirds do for Disney princesses singing in forests.
But the idea of compassion is what haunts me. More directly, the idea of confronting American racism with compassion has left me dragging rigid fingertips not so much through my hair but against my scalp, kinesics indicating less a need to hold onto something as much as a need to break through — possibly American racism for freedom of the soul, or possibly my skull for freedom from this idea of compassion as a necessity for killing beasts.
Hoby doesn’t specify how Morrison wields her “compassion,” but I’ve been considering the word more regularly as of late on account of the combative response to the arrest of Bill Cosby. The halls of the internet have blared with declarations from both ends. Suspicion surrounds the timing of the arrest — as it nips at the heels of the distressing exoneration of Tamir Rice’s killer, Timothy Loehmann — and challenges the outcries of more than fifty accusers and their supporters.
In many ways I feel like the gaping bystander of a black civil war — triggered by the fall of yet another black hero.
And, perchance, it is the warlike texture of this back-and-forth which has coaxed my laying aside facts for the sake of merely weighing emotions. This is not solely because the facts are a matter of public record: dozens upon dozens of similar accusations handcuffed to Cosby’s admission of not only procuring Quaaludes for the purpose of sex with women, but also never taking them himself because they made him sleepy. This is also because once a war begins, the facts surrounding the genesis of that conflict are often devoured by the ether of hot emotions.
Bill Cosby is not a convicted rapist — a fact so obvious it hardly merits an utterance, and yet may be the heartbeat of the matter.
“Bill Cosby is not a convicted rapist — but he should be!”
“Bill Cosby is not a convicted rapist — so leave him alone!”
I am a resident of the former camp, for numerous reasons. The preponderance of accusations. The diversity of the accusers juxtaposed with the similarities of the accusations. Cosby’s seeming detachment from a sense of responsibility or need for certainty when, in the infamous deposition, he describes sex with one of the accusers as living someplace “between permission and rejection” where he is “not stopped.” The admission of securing Quaaludes for sex with women when he knew they induced lethargy.
Truly, having only a percentage of those facts might have left me in the “so leave him alone!” camp — its rape apologists and victim-blamers notwithstanding — because, for most of my life, Bill Cosby has been one of my heroes. More than because he was rich and famous while black in America, and certainly not only because his show’s popularity smudged the racial boundaries that existed even in elementary school. But also because my father would give me piggyback rides to bed after the family finished watching another episode. And, additionally, because what became the last night I would ever spend with my father included his smile from a hospital bed when I showed him a DVD of Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier’s Let’s Do it Again.
There is no detaching Bill Cosby’s talent from some of the happiest and most meaningful moments of my life — and there is no true detachment of Bill Cosby from his talent.
Whenever I think about the emotions surrounding Bill Cosby, I rather oddly recall the well-known financial principle which advocates the cultivation of multiple streams of income for economic security. Initially, I believed this was because I personally needed multiple streams of information to secure my belief in a hero’s culpability. Lately, I’ve also found myself applying this piece of fiscal advice to the moment when I finally accepted the sexual attacks I sustained as a teenager.
Multiple memories. Multiple comments. Multiple nightmares.
Perhaps it is a blessing when the streams never stop flowing, coming again and again until exhaustion prompts the waving of a white flag. Perhaps that’s why I felt compelled to add one more Bill Cosby article to an already prodigious stockpile which would mean, sadly, that I am no longer just a bystander in this ersatz civil war. And perhaps, without the constant streams and bombardments, it is near impossible for anyone involved — victim, attacker, or bystander — to truly grasp the unsightly realities of sexual violence.
Additionally, as a matter of emotion rather than fact, I must say that the instant when one finds himself encompassed by traces of an offense as horrid as this is cataclysmic, is the moment when his emotions die trying to protect him from the truth. Giving words to one’s encounter with an experience as subhuman as sexual abuse is to use one’s most civil and sincere tongue for a subhuman language — is to feel like an intelligent human being whose conversation has been reduced to a dog’s bark. With regard to this specific subject, I’ve never struggled to understand why people have struggled to understand me.
I mention my personal experience because as a member of the “but he should be!” camp, I find myself both snarling at and envying the protests of members of the “so leave him alone!” faction who blame victims of sexual assault and question why they would let years pass before speaking about their survival. There are facts — only a Google search away — which speak to why this occurs. But there are also my emotions which often remind me that most of what I know regarding this subject I know from personal anguish.
And, because of the close relationship between that anguish and my education on the topic of sexual violence, there is a small part of me which remains grateful for any ignorance of this kind of violence — even if that ignorance does breathe life back into the beasts that I try to kill.
I do regularly eyeball that ignorance and grind my teeth because it makes the world a difficult place, but the tension in my jaws sometimes eases when I consider the ironic purity which creates that ignorance — the unspoiled quality entrenched within the bluster of one who’s never experienced the way evil can operate as a mute button.
In the moment, I’m willing to consider compassion as a necessary pause, a quick breath needed for the careful assessment of what the beast that I’m trying to kill actually is. But it is the rage which preserves the distance between me and that ignorance, that territory of the ill-informed which I never want to inhabit again but may one day try to revisit anyway — because not knowing is prettier than the scars that come with childhood desecrations and dead heroes.
Maybe this is why I not only feel like I’m in a civil war, but I somehow am one.
And surely this is why I resent the notion of compassion.
It feels like intoxicating myself on pretty things in a time of war — it feels like the fangs of a beast resting against my neck, and me telling myself that he only intends to kiss.
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