TIME Opinion

Bill Cosby, Camille Cosby and the Oppressive Power of Silence

What the couple's response to allegations of sexual assault reveal about the scandal

Camille Cosby smiles, uncomfortably shifting in her chair. Staring off camera, switching positions, silent. In the latest contribution to the Bill Cosby saga, we see husband and wife side by side as he addresses the very act of questioning about his numerous rape allegations in an AP interview (above). Mrs. Cosby continues to smile and looks away from the reporter several times, both she and her husband presuming that the cameras have stopped rolling. I will not read into her silence. I will not pull meaning about this woman and her thoughts and decisions other than to say that in the watching, the silence is palpable, wince-inducing and profoundly painful.

That exchange highlights the most meaningful currency in this 30+ year long drama that is just now seeing its climax unfold on the public stage: silence. At every turn, it is the silence that serves as a proxy for power in the story of Bill Cosby, his alleged sexual deviance and the current downward spiral of public opinion. Silence here, as in most cases, represents the power wielded and power taken by those who are seen as, well, powerful.

In Cosby’s story we find accusations of women being silenced for decades by threats, lawyers, fear and a generally defensive public, who until now were uninterested in being awakened from sweet dreams of their TV father.

The NPR audio interview released last week showcases Cosby’s clearly pre-determined response to the softest, almost nervous questions about the rape allegations: deafening silence.

This should not be viewed as the mature response of a well respected, integrity filled man (and in the case of his wife, a beloved, regal woman) attempting to maintain dignity and stay above the fray. It should be seen as what it is: A power move by a someone so arrogant that he thinks he shouldn’t even be asked about the fact that 15 women are accusing him of a horrific crime.

The silence of those publicly associated with Mr. Cosby is also noticeable, as comedians who revere him and actors and actresses whose careers were made by him avoid addressing the not-new bombshell like the plague.

And even in the most recent AP video, as Mrs. Cosby sits idly by, the central tension between Mr. Cosby and the reporter revolves around him pressuring the journalist into, what? Silence. He calmly yet persistently requests the editing out of his own “no comment” response to the reporter’s request for a statement. Be clear: In the actual interview, Mr. Cosby refused to discuss it, saying “I don’t talk about that.” It is that exchange that he wants scrubbed from the record. He even wants his silence silenced.

History teaches us that silence is often the most effective tool of power. It forces others into submission. It attempts to control a narrative. It hides things. And it is often a strategic attempt on the part of the powerful to shame other voices – the victims, the oppressed, the challengers, the inquisitors – into a similar silence.

But right now as Missouri police use military tactics and tear gas to force silence upon outraged but peaceful Ferguson protestors and rich executives threaten female reporters who won’t stop talking with personal attacks pulled from private investigators (see the latest Uber controversy), silence is not ok.

And that is why, despite our national love of Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, silence is not an option. Not for me. Not for his countless fans. Not for a media finally ready to deal with the dirt and thankfully, not for the women who are sharing their painful, private stories. It is time to counter his silence with other forms of power. The power of our common sense to see behind a made-for-TV character. The power of these women to, at the very least, have their voices heard. And the power for all of us to seek truth and justice, however unsettling it may be.

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