TIME Opinion

Ask an Ethicist: Can I Still Watch The Cosby Show?

Bill Cosby, Camille Cosby
Bill Cosby sits for an interview about the exhibit, Conversations: African and African-American Artworks in Dialogue, at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington on Nov. 6, 2014. Evan Vucci—AP

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?

(MORE: So What Do We Do About The Cosby Show?)

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 i 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.

TIME Television

So What Do We Do About The Cosby Show?

(Left to Right) Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Theodore 'Theo' Huxtable, Bill Cosby as Dr. Heathcliff 'Cliff' Huxtable, Keshia Knight Pulliam as Rudy Huxtable, Tempestt Bledsoe as Vanessa Huxtable on The Cosby Show.
(Left to Right) Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Theodore 'Theo' Huxtable, Bill Cosby as Dr. Heathcliff 'Cliff' Huxtable, Keshia Knight Pulliam as Rudy Huxtable, Tempestt Bledsoe as Vanessa Huxtable on The Cosby Show. NBC/Getty Images

If it's hard to "separate the art from the artist" this time, it's partly because the artist worked so hard to intertwine them.

“I don’t know what I’m doing by telling you. I guess I want to just at least make it weird for you to watch Cosby Show reruns.” —Hannibal Buress

Mission accomplished. The re-examination of rape accusations against Bill Cosby that Hannibal Buress — and a growing number of women subsequently coming forward with their stories — helped trigger has changed a lot, fast. A story that had largely lain buried for years is suddenly everywhere. And that has apparently ended Cosby’s late-career comeback: NBC quashed an in-development Cosby sitcom, while Netflix pulled a standup special planned to air the day after Thanksgiving.

The most important stakes here are about justice, not TV shows. But as Buress suggested, the cultural stakes are not about Cosby’s future — they’re about his past, his legacy. On the one hand, the public is hearing that a beloved entertainer has been accused of using his power to sexually prey on women for decades. On the other, that entertainer created a long-running TV show that was a landmark not just of entertainment but of American society.

The Cosby Show is part of our history; it can’t be erased. (Even if TV Land has pulled its reruns.) It’s funny, insightful, moving, great. But it is now also — whatever you think of the allegations and the real-world consequences — weird, in a way that’s hard to shake.

To be clear, I’m not asking here whether it’s “OK” to watch The Cosby Show. The moral question of whether to support an artist financially is a different one (and, as Todd van der Werff points out at Vox, whether or not you watch reruns will make very little difference to Cosby’s bottom line now). I don’t want to police that call, and if we ejected every questionable artist from the canon — abusers, bigots, reprobates — our bookshelves and movie queues would be a lot lighter.

But it seems hard to hear what we’ve been hearing and not feel anything different when watching Cliff Huxtable making faces and dispensing wisdom. “Innocent until proven guilty” is a standard for the courts, for good reason. But it’s not a standard for life. If what you know or hear about an artist affects the way you see their work, you can no more will yourself to feel otherwise than you can force yourself not to blink.

Of course, bad people can create great works. People are complicated. Art is complicated. And so is the question of whether you can separate the art from the artist — the answer is different for every creator and every audience member. Whatever you think of the disturbing allegations against Woody Allen, for instance, there’s a good argument that although his movies have often relied on his persona, they don’t depend on your considering him a morally upstanding person. (Even if some, like Crimes and Misdemeanors, turn on issues of morality.)

With The Cosby Show, though, Bill Cosby the person is throughly and intentionally baked into it— his identity, his persona, his claimed authority. It’s not a show made as if it wants us to separate the art from the artist, and not just because “Cosby” is in the name.

Cliff Huxtable isn’t — like “Jerry Seinfeld” in Seinfeld — a carbon copy of his creator. But Cosby invested himself in Cliff in ways that were deeper and more binding. He drew on his own life, patterning Theo’s struggles in school, for instance, on his own son Ennis’ diagnosis of dyslexia. Cliff and the show shared Cosby’s interests in African American high culture, especially jazz.

Cliff liked what Cosby liked, felt what he felt, argued what he argued. He may have had a different job, but more important, he had Cosby’s sensibility and sense of didactic purpose. As Mark Whitaker pointed out in his biography — which ignored the rape accusations but delved deep into Cosby’s creative life — the comedian mingled his real and fictional lives so thoroughly that during the first season that “the producers and director started to notice something telling. When they were discussing scripts, he would sometimes slip and refer to his character as Bill instead of Cliff.”

That was part of the power of The Cosby Show: people’s affection for Cosby transferred to Cliff, and their respect for Cliff rebounded to Cosby (who at the height of the show’s popularity wrote the best-selling Fatherhood). Everything about this relationship between artist and creation said: Cliff speaks for me. And what Cliff had to say was also, deliberately, instructive: about how parents should speak to children, how white Americans should see their African American neighbors, how men should regard women. (See, for instance, the running jokes spoofing the clueless chauvinism of Sondra’s husband Elvin.)

I’ve rewatched those episodes a lot lately, especially in the last few years as my kids have discovered the reruns on Hulu. They’re still funny and powerful. They stand up, and they stand on their own. But they’re also designed to work, in part, by drawing on the moral authority of Cliff and, by extension, Cosby.

We shouldn’t erase The Cosby Show‘s place in TV history — the way it changed comedy, represented the unrepresented and reframed African Americans in pop culture — even if it were possible to do so. No one owes it to the rest of the world to stop liking The Cosby Show. But it’s also understandable if, this time, you can’t easily “separate the art from the artist,” when the artist worked so hard and so effectively, for so long, to meld them together.

The Cosby Show is a great, important, transformational piece of American culture. Nothing Bill Cosby does or has done in real life can ever change that; nor can that ever excuse anything Bill Cosby does or has done in real life.

But will it ever, entirely not be weird? There is no statute of limitations on that.

Read next: Bill Cosby, Camille Cosby and the Oppressive Power of Silence

TIME celebrities

Bill Cosby to Perform Friday Night in Florida

Bill Cosby Performs At The Treasure Island
Comedian/actor Bill Cosby performs at the Treasure Island Hotel & Casino on September 26, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Ethan Miller—Getty Images

The show will go on despite reports that the event could draw protesters

Bill Cosby will perform in a Melbourne, Fla. venue on Friday night despite recent controversy surrounding multiple allegations of rape against the comedian.

His management put out a statement noting that Cosby “is a well-respected member of the entertainment community and one of America’s most beloved performers. While we are aware of the allegations reported in the press, we are only in a position to judge him based on his career as an entertainer and humanitarian. His sold-out show at the King Center for the Performing Arts this Friday, November 21 will go on as scheduled.”

A protest against his appearance is rumored, though officials from the venue say they have no specific information to confirm this.

When asked about the rape allegations, Cosby recently responded, “I don’t talk about it.”

[Florida Today]

TIME health

New Global Study Calls Violence Against Women ‘Epidemic’

A Pokot woman holds a razor blade after performing a circumcision on four girls in a village about 80 kilometres from the town of Marigat in Baringo County, Kenya, Oct. 16, 2014.
A Pokot woman holds a razor blade after performing a circumcision on four girls in a village about 80 kilometres from the town of Marigat in Baringo County, Kenya, Oct. 16, 2014. Siegfried Modola—Reuters

Governments need to step up their game to protect women, says extensive new research

When it comes to stopping violence against women, actions speak louder than words. So even though there’s increased worldwide awareness about violence against women, the problem won’t be solved unless countries make significant policy and financial changes to support victims, according to a five-part series of studies in The Lancet, one of the world’s premier medical journals.

The series, entitled “Violence Against Women and Girls,” calls the violence a “global public health and clinical problem of epidemic proportions,” and the statistics are bleak. 100-140 million women have undergone female genital mutilation worldwide, and 3 million African girls per year are at risk. 7% of women will be sexually assaulted by someone besides their partner in their lifetimes. Almost 70 million girls worldwide have been married before they turned 18. According to WHO estimates, 30% of women worldwide have experienced partner violence. The researchers said that these problems could only be solved with political action and increased funding, since the violence has continued “despite increased global attention,” implying awareness is not enough.

“No magic wand will eliminate violence against women and girls,” series co-lead Charlotte Watts, founding Director of the Gender Violence and Health Centre at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, said in a statement. “But evidence tells us that changes in attitudes and behavior are possible, and can be achieved within less than a generation.”

One of the major problems highlighted in the Lancet series is that much of the current research on violence against women has been conducted in high-income countries, and it’s mostly been focused on response instead of prevention. The study found that the key driver of violence in most middle-and-low income countries is gender inequality, and that it would be near impossible to prevent abuse without addressing the underlying political, economic, and educational marginalization of women.

The study also found that health workers are often uniquely positioned to help victims, since they’re often the first to know about the abuse.

“Health-care providers are often the first point of contact for women and girls experiencing violence,” says another series co-lead, Dr. Claudia Garcia-Moreno, a physician at the WHO, in a statement. “The health community is missing important opportunities to integrate violence programming meaningfully into public health initiatives on HIV/AIDS, adolescent health, maternal health, and mental health.”

The series makes five concrete recommendations to curb the violence against women. The authors urge nations to allocate resources to prioritize protecting victims, change structures and policies that discriminate against women, promote support for survivors, strengthen health and education sectors to prevent and respond to violence, and invest in more research into ways to address the problem. In other words: money, education, and political action are key to protecting the world’s most vulnerable women. Hashtag activism, celebrity songs, and stern PSAs are helpful, but this problem is too complicated to be solved by awareness alone.

“We now have some promising findings to show what works to prevent violence,” said Dr. Cathy Zimmerman from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine. “We urgently need to turn this evidence into genuine action so that women and girls can live violence-free lives.”

The study comes just in time for the UN’s International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, on Nov. 25.

TIME U.K.

Soccer Club Will Not Let Convicted Rapist Train

The club was criticized for initially agreeing to allow the soccer star to train

British soccer club Sheffield United has withdrawn its offer to let convicted rapist Ched Evans use their training facilities following his release from prison, according to a statement made Thursday.

Sheffield United had agreed to allow Evans to train with them again after the Professional Footballers’ Association argued the soccer star should be free to resume his career.

MORE: Soccer star convicted of rape returns to training amid angry debate

The club has now reversed the decision, citing the unexpected intensity of the public reaction.

A string of patrons resigned from the club and more than 165,000 members of the public signed a petition calling on the club not to allow Evans to play again.

Evans played for Sheffield United for three years before he was convicted in 2012 of raping a 19-year-old woman. He served two and a half years of a five-year sentence and was released from prison last month.

 

 

TIME celebrities

Bill Cosby’s Lawyer Refutes Allegations and Slams the Media for a ‘Feeding Frenzy’

Attorney claims accusations have “entered the realm of the ridiculous”

Bill Cosby’s attorney on Thursday dismissed the growing sexual assault allegations against the actor as “ridiculous” and decried a “media-driven feeding frenzy,” even as three more women came forward with accusations of their own.

“People are coming out the wood work with fabricated or unsubstantiated stories about my client,” Martin Singer said, according to Variety. He said the allegations had now “entered the realm of the ridiculous.”

MORE: Here’s everything we know (and don’t know) about the Bill Cosby rape allegations

Carla Ferrigno, wife of actor and bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, alleged in a radio interview on KFI’s John and Ken show that Cosby grabbed her and forcefully kissed her at his house in 1967, soon after his wife Camille had gone to sleep. The 77-year-old comedian also forced One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest actress Louisa Moritz to perform oral sex on him in 1971, Moritz alleged in an interview with TMZ. A third alleged victim—58-year-old nurse Therese Serignese—came forward earlier on Thursday, claiming that Cosby drugged her and had sex with her after his show in Las Vegas.

NBC and Netflix have put projects with Cosby on hold amid the growing allegations of rape and sexual assault against him, which were first made in 2005 but have recently resurfaced.

 

TIME celebrity

Raven-Symone Denies Rumors She Was Sexually Assaulted by Bill Cosby

"I was practically a baby on that show"

As more and more women have come forward to accuse comedian Bill Cosby of sexual assault, actress Raven-Symone’s name has been pulled into the discussion.

Raven-Symone, who was just three years old when she began appearing on The Cosby Show, took to Instagram on Wednesday to deny the claims swirling online. Along with a picture of herself as a child wagging a finger, she writes:

I was NOT taken advantage of by Mr Cosby when I was on The Cosby Show! I was practically a baby on that show and this is truly a disgusting rumor that I want no part of. Everyone on that show treated me with nothing but kindness. Now keep me out of this!

MORE: Here’s Everything We Know (and Don’t Know) About the Bill Cosby Rape Allegations

TIME Culture

New Sex Assault Allegation Leveled Against Bill Cosby

Another woman alleges Cosby drugged her into sexual activity decades ago

Another woman has come forward with allegations that she was sexually abused decades ago by actor and comedian Bill Cosby.

Speaking to People, Therese Serignese, 57, claims that when she was 19 years old, Cosby pressured her into taking Quaaludes and engaging in sexual activity after his show in Las Vegas. Serignese also said she provided a supporting deposition in a civil suit back in 2006 that was brought by another accuser and settled out of court.

Since 2005, more than a dozen women have accused Cosby of drugging or sexually abusing them. The allegations — which have not led to criminal charges — have recently garnered increased attention and prompted NBC to drop a planned Cosby sitcom and Netflix to postpone his comedy special.

Read more at People

TIME Media

Don Lemon Didn’t Just Victim-Blame–He Perpetuated Multiple Rape Myths

Don Lemon in weekend anchor spot at CNN.
Don Lemon in weekend anchor spot at CNN. Robin Nelson—Zuma Press/Corbis

Soraya Chemaly is a media critic and activist.

An interview with one of Bill Cosby's accusers displayed an unethical lack of knowledge about sexual assault

On Tuesday, CNN’s Don Lemon interviewed Joan Tarshis, one of more than a dozen women who have come forward over several years to accuse Bill Cosby of sexual assault. These allegations resurfaced after a comedian pointedly commented on them during a routine. This, in turn, prompted Barbara Bowman to ask publicly in an op-ed in The Washington Post, “Bill Cosby raped me. Why did it take 30 years for people to believe my story?” Former supermodel Janice Dickinson is now the 15th woman to come forward with allegations.

The allegations are hardly new, and the interview could have been an occasion for a serious and nuanced conversation about rape, about how survivors respond to and survive assault and about well-documented techniques used by serial abusers. Instead, what proceeded was appalling. Lemon, in a few brief lines, blamed the victim for not stopping her assault, while also managing to subtly convey a whole series of rape myths.

Lemon’s most repugnant suggestion was this: “You know, there are ways not to perform oral sex.” He went on to clarify that he meant the “using of the teeth” as a “weapon” to stop the alleged assault. Put crassly, “Why didn’t you bite his dick if you didn’t want to perform oral sex?” Lemon continued, “If you didn’t want to do it… In other words, “you really wanted it.”

Lemon’s belief that a woman being raped should simply bite her rapist’s penis isn’t just ridiculous, dangerous victim blaming, but is based on what is possibly the oldest and most enduring rape myth: that “real” rape must be “forced” and corroborated by evidence of struggle. This was the FBI’s definition of rape until 2012.

First, sexual assault victims frequently respond physiologically with shock. Survivors often describe being paralyzed and unable to process or respond to what is happening to them. It’s a well-documented immobility response common in cases of rape.

Second, rape victims often have to quickly assess risk, as in, “This man is raping me. If I fight, will he beat me up or kill me?” Angering an aggressor by resisting or inflicting pain on him is not a survival strategy that women and children can pursue in equal measure to men. Lemon seems blithely unconcerned with immobility, or the risk of death, being a real effect of assault.

“Forcible rape” is rooted in the idea that some women aren’t “rapeable” and that men are entitled to sex. Historically, in this country, legally unrapeable people included, until relatively recently, black women (who were property), wives (also property), single women (who “give it away”), women who didn’t put up a fight, women who didn’t say “no,” and men. The idea of “forcible rape” is shaped by a history of racism and sexism, and Lemon’s approach to Tarshis’ accusation is common, and legally consequential, despite decades of challenges to its assumptions.

Lemon’s line of questioning was a lost opportunity to inform his audience about how predatory rapists work. Rape doesn’t happen by accident because women get drunk. It happens when predators target them. Incapacitation has been a consistent element in all of the cases leveled against Cosby. Tarshis herself admits that she was stoned during the encounter. Barbara Bowman, Tamara Green, Beth Ferrier and others have all told strikingly similar stories of being drugged and raped. And though it shouldn’t need stating, incapacitated people are not capable of consent.

Lemon also managed to undermine Tarshis’ accusations by pointing out that she “lied.” He explained, “You lied to him and said ‘I have an infection, and if you rape me, or if you do — if you have intercourse with me, then you will probably get it and give it to your wife.’” “She lied” is a persistent, and comforting, rape myth. It’s also the laziest, because it’s so clearly and consistently debunked. False rape accusations, though, are rare and no more common than false accusations for other crimes. Tarshis herself has subsequently gone to great and graphic pains to explain her failed attempted to dissuade Cosby.

The final myth Lemon implied in his interview is one that is rarely stated but that underlies most of the others: a rapist without a knife or a gun isn’t a “real” threat. The only reference to a weapon was to the possibility of a woman using her teeth. No mention was made of the reality that rape is the weaponization of the assailant’s body. Regardless of the fact that most men do not fit the profile of the rapist, we live in a world where girls and women are taught that to avoid rape means, to some degree, to fear men. That fact is the scaffolding of patriarchal oppression.

Ultimately, rape is a crime of status and entitlement. Cosby, who has declined to address the allegations, is a revered celebrity father figure. Longtime fans are flummoxed by the idea that this person, adored and emulated, could be a rapist. Most rapes, however, are perpetrated not by strangers, but by acquaintances, family members and friends. RAINN and the Department of Justice report that 73% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a non-stranger: 38% of rapists are friends or acquaintances, 28% are an intimate partners and 7% are a relatives. They don’t use weapons to rape; they use authority and power.

Lemon’s words may have seemed few and simple, but the sum of their meaning and history is neither. I admire Lemon’s ability to pack so much rape mythology into just a few minutes of airtime. And, he got paid for it, to boot. But in seriousness, he, and his employer, displayed an irresponsible and journalistically unethical lack of knowledge about sexual assault. Lemon apologized on Wednesday if his comments “struck anyone as insensitive,” but no apology can undo the damage done.

Soraya Chemaly is a media critic and activist whose work focuses on the role of gender in politics, religion and popular culture. Her work appears in Salon, CNN, Ms. Magazine, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, RHRealityCheck, Role Reboot and The Feminist Wire.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME sweden

Julian Assange’s Appeal is Rejected by Swedish Court

Julian Assange
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange speaks to the media inside the Ecuadorean embassy in London on June 14, 2013. Anthony Devlin—AFP/Getty Images

Assange still faces extradition to Sweden if he leaves London's Ecuadorian embassy

The Swedish Court of Appeal has upheld an arrest warrant against the Australian Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, who is wanted for questioning regarding allegations of sexual assault and rape in Sweden.

Assange, who denies the allegations, has sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London for more than two years in order to avoid extradition. A Swedish prosecutor first issued an arrest warrant for Assange in 2010 but Assange had appealed for this order to be revoked.

The Court explained its reasoning in upholding the detention order in a statement, saying that “Julian Assange is suspected of crimes of a relatively serious nature.”

“There is a great risk that he will flee and thereby evade legal proceedings if the detention order is set aside,” the court argued, but also noted that Sweden’s investigation into Assange remains deadlocked.

[Guardian]

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