I can get over the fact that Martin Luther King, Jr. cheated on his wife, but I don't care that the Nazis made the trains run on time. Making that call is a moral calculus: when do the negative aspects of a public figure outweigh the positive? Granted, in Bill Cosby's case, we're talking about a comedian, but the question is relevant for The Cosby Show's legacy. Should I think less of The Cosby Show's power to teach and to change perceptions of race in America if it turns out Bill Cosby is a rapist?
Like most people, when I first heard word of allegations that Bill Cosby had raped multiple women, I impulsively pushed them to the back of my mind. For me, The Cosby Show's legacy is personal. As a kid, the young Huxtables were among the few children on television with faces that looked like mine living well-adjusted upper middle class existences that resembled my own. When I considered my Cosby experience alongside the actor's on-screen persona, a doctor and family man who combined life lessons with old-fashioned humor, I intuitively knew that he couldn't be a serial rapist.
But eventually emotion gave way to reason. Seven women with little to gain have reported that Cosby committed the same heinous crime, rape, in the same way. So if someone like me, a life long fan, believes these women, where does that leave The Cosby Show? Are all of Cosby’s indelible life lessons suddenly moot? Does secretly watching an episode when no one is around condone sex crimes?
To help me think through these questions, I turned to ethicists and academics.
First, there's the question of morality versus art. To condemn his actions, do I also have to repudiate the man and his work? I took this up with Jeremy David Fix, a fellow at Harvard's Safra Center for Ethics who studies moral philosophy: Would continuing to watch The Cosby Show harm anyone, even indirectly?
On the one hand, watching the show helps in some small way line Bill Cosby's pockets via residuals. On the other hand, with an estimated net worth of over $350 million at the age 77, he can already rest assured that he’ll live the rest of his life comfortably. But Harvard's Fix asks a good question: What about the women who have been assaulted—what sort of message does it send if I keep supporting Cosby, even indirectly? I had to give up watching, I started to conclude. Otherwise, I might inadvertently send the signal that I think sexual assault is something that can be treated flippantly.
But how do I weigh the message that watching the show might send victims against the still-needed message that it sends to America at-large about race? I had finally stumped Fix. So I turned to historians and other thinkers to talk about the show's legacy and whether it still has a positive role to play in discussions about race.
Joe Feagin, a sociologist who has written about The Cosby Show, talks eloquently about the indelible impression the show left on the country. Black Americans tend to celebrate the achievement of a top-rated show featuring a black cast in a positive light. They will probably keep doing that even if they condemn its creator. White Americans tend to celebrate the show as evidence that African-Americans can succeed in middle class life, Feagin said. While that view leaves society's entrenched racism unaddressed, I'd still take Cosby over the Sanford and Son. Let's face it, American residential communities are still largely racially homogenous, and it would certainly benefit future generations to see black families like the Huxtables.
So I tried to convince myself that somehow we could condemn Cosby's rape message while continuing to watch the show. That is, I hoped we could separate Cliff Huxtable from Bill Cosby. But in the end, I don't think we can any more. The two are so closely linked that as I tried to watch an episode of The Cosby Show this week, the image of Cliff kept reminding me of the actor's pathetic silence in response to questions about the accusations him. If that distracted me, I can only imagine how an assault survivor would feel. The show has positively affected millions of Americans, and that legacy remains intact, but maybe it's time for a new show to teach us about race. It's a little overdue anyway.