Tragedy is something that we humans have a good handle on. When someone dies before their time, or when a hurricane hits, we all understand that we should feel sad. Comedy, on the other hand, is a much more nebulous idea. Some jokes are funny to everyone; some jokes are funny to none; some jokes make half of a room laugh, but make the other half wonder how the hell anyone could find humor there. Then, there are times when comedy and tragedy blend together, in a way that makes even the people with the broadest senses of humor wonder how to react.
Bill Cosby is a figure that has blended the two for years, even before Hannibal Burress made the joke that brought forward the numerous allegations of rape and sexual assault leveled against Cosby. As a country, we have never really known whether to see Cosby as his stand-up persona, or as his character Cliff Huxtable on his much loved sitcom, The Cosby Show. The allegations that have been leveled against Cosby are even further complicated by this national memory of Cliff Huxtable as one of the most beloved father figures of the 80’s and 90’s.
So why does this matter? The statute of limitations has run out on the sexual assault charges, so Cosby will never see the inside of a court room for them. Moreover, our country has a policy of innocent until proven guilty, and Cosby himself is reluctant to acknowledge the issue at all (except for what is certainly the joke made with the poorest taste of the year), and so how are we to decide where our opinions stand.
The reason that this matters is because Haverford College, OUR community, awarded Bill Cosby an honorary degree in 2002. This is the same community which caused a hubbub by protesting the idea of giving an honorary degree to Robert J. Birgeneau just last year because some students felt that he did not represent the community standards that we view as integral to the Haverford experience. However you feel about the Birgeneau debate, we all can agree that sexual assault is not in line with the standards we want to uphold. However, the question is to what degree Cosby can be connected to these allegations, since he can only ever be accused in the court of public opinion. Obviously, this is an incredibly difficult issue whenever it arises, but certain things about the Cosby situation make me argue that he does not deserve to keep a degree from our College.
The first of these situations is the fact that I believe the degree we gave Cosby was given more for his character of Cliff Huxtable, than for any other persona that he has embodied. Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable was a successful dentist, who was seen as ‘America’s Dad,’ and who was a positive and successful African American character on television at a time that The Dukes of Hazzard was still showing a car with the Confederate Flag on it every week. Unfortunately though, Bill Cosby is not Cliff Huxtable. Cosby’s television shows, and to a lesser extent, his comedy (which is problematic and outdated now), really did attempt to be a powerful force for good rather than just entertainment. However, that good would be far outweighed by any truth that lies in these allegations. Cliff Huxtable is the kindly and supportive patriarch, and Bill Cosby is the (alleged) monster.
A further strike against Cosby in my book is the joke I referenced above. For me, this is the most decisive piece of evidence, because it is something that Cosby himself did for the entire world to see, rather than the accusations. Although in many ways, we have done the women who have shared their stories a disservice by placing the burden of proof on the survivors of sexual assault, these accusations will remain mere accusations unless Cosby steps forward and confesses. I come to this joke from the perspective of a Haverford student, but also from the perspective of an (incredibly) amateur comedian. My time in one of Haverford’s improvisational comedy groups has taught me a lot, but one of the things that I learned almost from day one is that when you are thinking of something off the cuff you have to approach the boundaries of what you personally think of as funny much more carefully. I am all for rebellious humor, which can often use things which other people would think of as crossing a line to make people laugh.
However, I firmly believe that jokes about rape and sexual violence lie beyond that line. We live in a society where 55% of colleges and universities with 1000 or more students had at least one reported sexual assault on their campus in 2012, and there are countless other nauseating statistics that address rape and sexual violence on college campuses, not even mentioning the world at large. Cosby not only made a crass joke, but he made it after a huge number of women had come forward to say that he had assaulted them. Now a total of 26 women have accused Cosby of this, and his reaction is to tell a woman in his audience she has to “be careful drinking around [him].” This shows that Cosby thinks this whole thing is a joke (it’s not). Moreover, it shows his total lack of understanding that women really live in a world where they do have to be careful about drinking things. There is a rape culture in our society, and Bill Cosby perpetuates it by making jokes.
Whether he is guilty or not (I think he is, but we will never know), Cosby does not uphold values that I hope are integral to this school. I do not know whether his degree should be taken away. In many ways, that seems to be at best a symbolic gesture; at worst, an ineffectual move against a multi-millionaire who can never be charged with these crimes. However, I do believe that we should not let this issue fade into the background. His joke alone has shown that it is too easy to see sexual violence as random statistics, rather than as a painfully real thing that all too many people come into contact with. So even though 2014 was overflowing with news stories and issues that were all terrible (and judging by the recent news from Chapel Hill, 2015 isn’t looking all that much better), we must stay angry about the issues of sexual assault, and to at least still be angry with Bill Cosby because he does not care about those issues at all.