Remember the times when you would
tell younger black comedians that they
shouldn’t use swear words in their
comedy because it wasn’t friendly to
family audiences? It’s a little thing, but
it is comments like that which made you
seem like some kind of moral authority
that made your fall all the more striking
to see. At first, we were a bit shocked that
someone would accuse so venerable an
institution as you of rape. You were, after
all, Dr. Huxtable, the face of cake-loving
upwardly mobile blacks of your time, and
you had mourned the death of your son
when I was young. You were a sympathetic
figure, in other words, at least at first. But
as time went on, more and more people told
us another side of you that we had not recognized
before. Did you think, when you were taking
advantage of those women, that you should not
be doing such things because they were not the
behavior that we would expect from someone
who possessed, if only for a while, some sort of
moral authority in a world that seemed so much
without morals? Perhaps you will have some time
to think about that as you spend the rest of your
days behind bars.
At least a couple times before , I have commented on the ongoing case involving Bill Cosby. At the beginning of his legal troubles, he was an elderly if highly respected actor who was looking to restart his career with a family-friendly sitcom. As the course of his trial went on, it became clear to many people (myself included) that the moral authority that Cosby had sought to claim was in fact not the full story about the man. Indeed, it became increasingly clear that he had frequently taken advantage of others, and instead of gentle Dr. Huxtable, the image was of a menacing predator who served as an unofficial pitchman for quaaludes. I am left, as one might imagine, with a great deal of mixed feelings about this. I do not consider myself to be someone who wants to think badly of people and wants to tear others down, but at the same time I am also someone who believes in the importance of justice, especially justice to those who have been exploited and taken advantage of sexually. And yet this serves to put one in a somewhat ambivalent position.
Bill Cosby, after all, sought to defend a public morality, despite his shortcomings in his personal life. When we are dealing with people in the public sphere, we are often faced with the choice between people who hypocritically profess virtue in public but whose private lives often show some sort of unrestrained personal sins or people who deliberately attack virtue in public and whose private lives are every bit as lacking in virtue as their public hostility to morality and decency. To be sure, none of us are perfect, and if any of us sought to present ourselves as moral exemplars carved out of marble, there would no doubt be some sort of personal struggles in the shadowy areas of our lives that would lead others to view us in a negative fashion. A great deal of our widespread hypocrisy comes from the belief that an admission of struggle is taken simultaneously as an attack on the standards that we wish to defend even if we do not perfectly embody them in our own experience. And it is that precise dilemma that leads so many people to present as strong a face of public rectitude as possible even in the knowledge that they do not perfectly embody the standards they wish to encourage in others.
Is there another way between the Scylla of moral turpitude on the one side and the Charybdis of hypocrisy on the other? Is there a way where we can more or less successfully wrestle with our demons while maintaining a sufficiently robust moral face in defense of beleaguered standards of morality and decency in an increasingly decadent society? Let us use Mr. Cosby as a hypothetical example. We know from his public presentation, going back decades, that he wanted to be seen as a family friendly voice in public discourse and he sought to take a stand against obscenity in comedy. If he would have lived in the expectation that his private deeds would not remain so, there are some steps that he might have taken in order to preserve his honor, such as refusing to be alone in the presence of a woman who was not his wife. He could have sought what are now called “accountability partners” to help keep him on the straight and narrow and avoid those places where he was most threatened to be unfaithful to his wife and to take advantage of those who were vulnerable. To be sure, he would have enjoyed the fruits of power in Hollywood a lot less, but on the plus side he would have remained someone who could be respected and regarded and would not have faced the gloomy prospect of having his entire life’s work crumble before the eyes of everyone else and spend his sunset years in prison as a convicted serial rapist.
Would it have been embarrassing to seek the help of others in ensuring one’s private virtue? Yes. To admit that one struggles with loathsome desires to dominate and take advantage of others is not an easy thing to admit. Yet the more I look at the world, the more I see that all of us as human beings have longings and desired that, if fulfilled, would bring ruin to ourselves personally and would cause a great deal of harm to others as well. Whether these longings are a desire to be respected that might lead us to become a bully, or a longing for intimacy that might lead us to dishonor the offices and positions and roles that we have in institutions, or a longing for financial ease and comfort that might not be in alignment with the well-being of the companies we work for, and so on and so forth, we all want things that are not ours to have and face the temptation of whether we will restrain ourselves based on what is right or whether we will try to justify ourselves and make ourselves appear to have a virtue that we do not possess so that we can continue to have the power and influence and respect and regard we have. It would appear that the alternative to a private admission of struggle that leads to a group of people looking out for each other is a lonely and private hypocrisy where one feigns a level of moral rectitude that one does not possess, with the possibility that the lie will be exposed to our personal destruction. In such a world why would any sane person wish to draw attention to themselves?
 See, for example: