The Ethical Failure of Bill Cosby: Right Message, Wrong Messenger
Bill Cosby, celebrity, comedian, actor, producer, author and educator, has been both celebrated and condemned in the black community for criticizing the parenting skills and values of black parents. Should his comments be accepted or rejected according to their truth and application to real world problems, or should they be devalued as the hypocritical opinions of a man whose own values cannot stand scrutiny?
Though most of the media has gone out of its way to bury the story, Bill Cosby, in addition to all his accomplishments, is almost certainly serial sexual harasser and quite probably a sexual predator as well. In November, he settled a lawsuit with Andrea Constand, a former Temple University employee who claimed that Cosby drugged and sexually assaulted her at his Philadelphia mansion. This could easily be dismissed as another example of a wealthy and innocent public figure paying to make a spurious but embarrassing lawsuit go away; after all, Cosby denies her story, and has such an excellent reputation that the media feels compelled to believe him. But there is a problem with such an interpretation, for when Constand’s suit was made public, not one, not two, but thirteen former associates, acquaintances and employees of Cosby came forward voluntarily to testify that he had done the same thing to them! Such a mass of corroborating victims is the tell-tale trademark of a habitual harasser.
OK. Bill Cosby is not the sterling individual he pretends to be. But does that invalidate his legitimacy as a social critic? Should it invalidate his legitimacy?
An unethical messenger can certainly deliver an ethical message. Adolf Hitler could tell his followers that it is wrong to kill, and his statement wouldn’t be any less true than if it had come from the mouth of Gandhi. Similarly, a saint who advocated torture might well undermine his saintly status, but his sentiment would be exactly as unethical as if it had been expressed by the Marquis de Sade. Cosby is, the evidence seems to show, an unethical messenger and one whose appeal to African American parents to be good role models for their children’s sake seems hypocritical. Don’t curse in the house, but if you get a chance to slip a pretty girl a Mickey and have your way with her, that’s fine and dandy, right Dr. Huxtable?
Cosby’s answer to this accusation when it has been put to him has been to say that his message should be evaluated on its own merits, and the mistakes he has made in his life are irrelevant. Cosby is trying to have it both ways. His message is being debated and publicized in the black community only because it is being delivered by him, Bill Cosby, celebrity, comedian, actor, producer, author and educator. The message wouldn’t have any impact if, for example, I delivered it; the black community doesn’t know me, or have a reason to listen to what I say. And Bill Cosby, who it appears gave drugged wine to at least fourteen young women (logic tells us it was probably more), cannot deliver this message either. When a parent who lets his children run wild sends me unsolicited parenting advice, I don’t give careful consideration to his recommendations because I don’t respect his parenting skills. Somewhere a seven year-old girl may be explaining the secret to world peace that we have sought for centuries, but even though she has stumbled on the wisdom of the ages, she has no credibility. No one will listen. That’s life.
If a messenger has an important message to deliver, he or she must acknowledge human nature and how the persuasiveness and perceived wisdom of every message depends upon the character and conduct of the messenger. Having the right message is not good enough, even though logically it may seem that it should be. Bill Cosby, who understood that his accomplishments gave him a platform to help change the conduct of some black parents for the better, also had an obligation not to undermine his power to deliver a message that could accomplish this important goal. And he failed that obligation. It seems that he preferred to drug and assault attractive women rather than to protect his status as a respected role model. The media has protected his reputation so far, perhaps out of a misguided belief that Cosby’s message is so important that they should keep a flawed messenger’s dark secrets. Experience tells us that this seldom works. When Cosby is finally exposed, his message will be devalued along with his reputation.
Like it or not, a good message needs a good messenger.