Kathleen Parker on Nov 25 wrote a column for the Washington Post entitled “From Bill Cosby to Ferguson, a reminder of our rule of law”. In it she makes a comparison between belief in the accusations against Cosby and rejection of the Grand Jury findings by the rioters in Ferguson. She argues that those who have judged Bill Cosby as guilty of having raped many women because many women have come forward to accuse him of rape are also lawless because “we have formed our opinions based on no established facts or evidence and only on the memories of the women, most of whom say they were drugged at the time. Some of them have conceded that their recollections are foggy — which, of course they would be, after decades and under pharmaceutically induced circumstances, allegedly.”
I find it absurd to make any kind of parallel between those who reject the judgment of a careful Grand Jury investigation and those who accept the testimony of so many women against Cosby. One case in 2004 – about a rape in 2004 — involving the testimonies of thirteen women was settled out of court. A former NBC employee claims for years he transported women to Cosby’s dressing room and then later wrote checks to them – he has receipts!; at least some of that sex seems not to have been consensual. The University of Massachusetts/Amherst (and several other schools as well) has severed ties with Cosby, a big donor and honorary co-chair of a fund-raising campaign, because they believe the accusations.
While Parker finds the accusations against Cosby likely to be true, she opines, “what you or I think in the absence of a trial to present and defend against charges with evidence and testimony under oath is irrelevant.” Irrelevant to what? We can’t depend upon the courts to make all such decisions for us.
Parker continues: “It is at least a mockery of justice [to judge Cosby] that bodes not so well for a present-future when lives are destroyed on the basis of, dare I say, gossip.” Gossip? When women file lawsuits and receive financial settlements and when women do not file lawsuits but give public testimony that serves no obvious selfish ends, that hardly qualifies as gossip. But gossip is not always an unworthy source; if a father heard from his sons that a young man treated women poorly, he would not need a court conviction to be very hesitant about allowing his daughter to date said young man.
Parker calls the judgment – fueled by social media — that Cosby is guilty, a “high-tech” lynching. Really?
Parker and, from what I have read on Facebook posts, many others are confused about when and why it is permissible to judge people not convicted in court, guilty of terrible crimes. (See Simcha Fisher’s cataloguing of various responses).
Many cite the legal principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” That is a very useful principle in respect to legal proceedings. Certainly we should not be incarcerating or fining people until they are found guilty by due process. But wait… we do that all the time! We put some suspects in jail for quite long periods of time until the time of trial. Others we allow to go free but hold their money hostage in the form of bail until a trial takes place. Still, it doesn’t apply here because we are not seeking to put Cosby in jail (though that is where he likely belongs). Giving someone honor, inviting someone to speak at a fund-raiser, for instance, require a different standard, than putting someone in jail.
Consider the policy of the Catholic Church that takes a priest out of ministry when there are “credible” accusations against him. Millions have been paid out to victims although trials were never held. The “gossip” or testimony of victims has been found plausible, sometimes even though decades have passed and determining the veracity and motives of witnesses is not always easy. Still, a preponderance of evidence adds up and a reasonable determination of guilt is made. For too long the accusations against the notorious pedophile and sex abuser Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, were not believed and thus no investigation was made.
As noted, trials and investigations cannot even take place unless a judgment of some kind is made, a judgment that there is reasonable evidence that a person is guilty. Yet, sometimes settlements are made before guilt is formally determined. Settlements are made for many reasons, among them, that an accused person who is innocent does not want the expense or publicity of a trail. Another common reason for settling is that the evidence against the suspect is overwhelming and the suspect will fare better if there is not a trial. If the reason for settlement is not given, is it always wrong to make a reasonable judgment in some cases that the guilt of the accused was a part of the reason for the settlement?
Indeed, a trial does not ensure that we have established the innocence or guilt of a person. Was it wrong for those who followed the O.J. Simpson case closely to conclude that he was guilty, even though the jury acquitted him? [edited]
I cannot see that the “innocent until proven guilty” standard is operative in the public judgment of Cosby.
But what about the scriptural admonition, repeated by Pope Francis in well-known circumstances, that we are not to judge? I suspect there are several proper interpretations of that admonition. One application is that since we have so many planks in our own eyes, we should not fuss at the speck in the eyes of others: that is, since we likely have worse failings than those that we observe in others, we should not be judging others. That application does not seem to fit our judging of Cosby.
Another application has to do with our inability to know what drives people to do what they do. While we can know the goodness or badness of their actions we cannot judge their interior state. Prostitutes, for instance, are engaging in seriously wrong actions, but we cannot know how guilty they are for their actions until we know why they have chosen to engage in prostitution.
This principle that someone who has manifestly done something horrible but may not be morally culpable is extremely important. Some people do horrible things out of ignorance or because of insanity, for instance. We can be certain they performed certain deeds but also not know how to judge the extent of their moral culpability. The legal system must wrestle with such difficulties and generally gives more severe penalties to those the judges or jury are convinced acted with full knowledge and intent; others acting from ignorance or insanity, for instance, are sometimes released without penalty or given a reduced penalty. It is true that we do not know why Cosby did what he allegedly did; I don’t know if some mitigating pathology, for instance, drove him to do what he allegedly did, but I do think there are lots of reason to believe he did what he allegedly did and it is not wrong for there to be a public outrage about it.
Now, note again, Parker is not saying that it is likely that Cosby has been falsely accused; she thinks it likely that he is guilty but does not think it just for us to be making a big fuss out of this and to be speaking publicly and with conviction about his guilt.
Is Parker right? Is it wrong for the public to judge Cosby? What do Cosby’s alleged rapes have to do with us? Is his guilt or innocence irrelevant to us?
Well, Cosby is still out and about. Shouldn’t women be wary of him, still? What woman with any sense would want to have a drink with Cosby in private? A parent whose daughter might be taking employment where Cosby is in the vicinity and indeed the daughter herself should certainly be interested in Cosby’s “reputation.”
Moreover, Cosby is a public figure and we are the public. When a public figure commits terrible crimes it is of interest to the public. Why? Perhaps more now than at any other time, in our time so given to celebrity worship, we need to learn that public figures are not saints; celebrities have no special moral standing. (Or political wisdom – why are those with no expertise invited to speak at the UN, for instance?).
We need to be clear that just because an actor portrays a moral character, that does not mean the actor is moral. We need to know these things because we have a habit of holding up celebrities as models – and if someone is not a worthy model we need to know it. That person should not be lauded and awarded, for instance, by pro-family groups. Cosby was one of those we want to laud and promote and award because he was so effective at portraying a very human, wise and loving father. One of the saddest elements of Cosby’s “fall” is that he was a spokesman for male responsibility in the African-American community; he was delivering a message that much needed to be heard. His message is excellent, but he is no longer credible.
Finally, we are a culture wherein it is difficult to have a consensus about any moral issue. Luckily we still seem to agree that rape is always wrong although it seems even that consensus is eroding. Too many college men seem to think inebriated coeds are fair game. It is good that we register our consensus when we can.
Kathleen Parker is usually a sensible person but in this instance she has compared rotten apples with ripe oranges (or something like that!). Judging is what human beings should do; we should be judging whether an action is right or wrong and whether there is good reason to judge someone to be innocent or guilty. We should be very careful in assigning guilt but we should not apply standards that are suitable only for the courtroom or the confessional to dealing with those in our midst.