Bill Cosby is innocent

We forget this at our peril.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics USA

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Bill Cosby – what a creep. Drugging all those women, molesting them, raping some. Can you believe we worshipped this guy when he played the joke-making everyman Cliff Huxtable in the Eighties? Well, now we know better. He isn’t the loveable avuncular dude we all thought he was. Rather, as those memes slicing through the internet like knives in Caesar’s back reveal, he’s a ‘serial rapist’. As one especially popular internet tag has it: ‘America’s fave dad by day – serial rapist by night.’

That has been the tenor of the discussion about Cosby on the web over the past fortnight. And it has been as ugly as hell: vindictive, gossip-fuelled, backward and positively medieval in its rush to condemn a man before he has been found guilty of a crime. Whatever you think of Cosby – I remember even as a kid I thought The Cosby Show was pants – this media-led public criminalisation of someone who hasn’t been convicted of a crime should chill you. Because the fact is, Cosby is innocent of rape. Just as you are. Just as I am. At least until such a time as someone does the very hard job of proving beyond reasonable doubt that he did rape someone. There’s a phrase for this, I think. How does it go? Ah, yes: ‘A man is presumed innocent until proven guilty.’

The speed with which Cosby has gone from being the uncle of modern America to the scum of the world wide web has been terrifying. As a CNN headline summed it up: ‘From TV dad to accused sexual predator.’ That’s basically what has happened to Cosby’s reputation in the space of two weeks. It started when he invited his fans to ‘meme him’ – that is, make pictures of him saying funny things to be shared on the web. Some wags decided to make memes of him saying things like ‘I found my raping hat!’ and ‘My two favourite things: Jell-o pudding and rape’. This was in reference to an old accusation of sexual assault for which Cosby was never prosecuted. Before long, other women – 16 in total now – had come forward to accuse Cosby of sexually assaulting them, too, in some cases more than 50 years ago. The media have had a field day, interviewing the accusers and writing dark, salacious pieces about Cosby’s ‘double life’. ‘You rape women, Bill Cosby’, said one entertainer in the US.

Does Bill Cosby rape women? Has he ever? We don’t know, but justice – Enlightenment itself – demands that we say, ‘No. Prove otherwise if you can.’ The shockingly speedy condemnation of Cosby shows how little value we attach to the ideal of ‘presumed innocent until proven guilty’ today. You can see it in the words the media use. A Guardian writer casually refers to Cosby’s ‘victims’, rather than talking about them as accusers. Others talk about him being ‘radioactive’, which is another way of saying ‘guilty already’. An American feminist says we must ‘start believing [the] women’, even while acknowledging that the statute of limitations on his alleged crimes (remember the a-word?) has passed. In short, the women are telling the truth. Cosby raped them. End of story. As under Stalin’s tyranny, or in the era of witch-hunts, an accusation is enough to condemn a man to hell – or at least radioactivity.

It’s tempting to argue that this ugly denigration of due process is down to the culture of the internet, as a few commentators have tried to do (before being branded ‘rape apologists’, for even to stand up for universal values such as innocent until proven guilty is to run the risk of being labelled a friend of evil). And it’s true that Twitter, where finger-pointing at Cosby has been rife and demented, has made it easier for people to do the thing they might once have done over the garden fence: wondered out loud, feverishly and often sans facts, whether so-and-so is a rapist / murderer / paedo. But, actually, there’s more to the Cosby debacle than the caliginous culture of the web: it also speaks to a non-virtual, very real-world denigration of some of the key principles of law, justice and democracy in recent years.

Ours is an era which craves monsters, which needs demons we can all rail against in an attempt to drum up a feeling of collective moral purpose, however fleeting it might prove. And the pesky exacting standards of the justice system – which are exacting precisely because we used to take very seriously the process of ruining someone’s life by finding him guilty of a crime – get in the way of this desire to find a symbol of evil we can all be disgusted by. Bloody justice demands proof, patience. It implicitly doubts accusers and puts up barriers to finding the defendant guilty of a crime: it gives defendants the presumption of innocence, the right to silence, the right to walk free unless every doubt as to his innocence has been eradicated. What a palaver. Can’t we chip away at all this nonsense and just say ‘he’s guilty, radioactive, so let’s hate him’? This has been happening more and more in recent years.

So the media outlets imploring us automatically to believe Cosby’s accusers echo the ‘believe the children’ movement of the 1980s, which assumed all children who made accusations of sexual abuse were telling the truth. This demand that we suspend scepticism, that we believe accusations right away, reveals a broader cultural hollowing-out of the presumption of innocence and of defendants’ rights. The media’s use of the term ‘victims’ to refer to Cosby’s accusers also springs from worrying mainstream trends. Last year, the Metropolitan Police took the extraordinary step of saying of everyone who made uninvestigated accusations against Jimmy Savile: ‘We are… referring to them as “victims” rather than “complainants” and are not presenting the evidence they have provided as unproven allegations.’ This, too, spoke to a terribly cavalier approach to the principles of justice when it comes to the urge to create monsters – in this case the modern-day Satan, Savile. Recent attempts have also been made to make it harder to cross-examine complainants in rape trials, because… well, can’t we just get on with the business of finding an evil man to loathe?

Many of the pundits rushing to demote Cosby to devil have used the phrase ‘no smoke without fire’, now that 16 women have made similar allegations. This might seem commonsensical, but it is also antithetical to what we used to know as justice. As historical incidents everywhere from Salem in the seventeenth century to Shieldfield in the 1990s show, lots of accusations do not mean guilt can be inferred, and can actually mean the opposite. In the Shieldfield case, two nursery workers in Newcastle were accused of horrific abuse on the children in their care. They were later cleared of all charges. Mr Justice Eady spoke about the suggestion that because the nursery workers had a lot of accusations made against them, this must mean they were guilty. This is ‘an inherently sloppy approach to any serious allegation’, he said, and more importantly it ignores the way in which ‘a feeding frenzy [can lead] to a grave risk of cross-fertilisation between the accounts given’. In short, often there is smoke without fire, especially in a climate of ‘frenzy’; a climate of fear; a climate that longs for a monster; a climate like Salem, where accusations also spread like wildfire; a climate like that currently surrounding Cosby.

What is very telling is that the broadsheet press is leading the charge against Cosby, using the very same tactics of salacious finger-pointing as they condemned in the tabloids when they ‘named and shamed’ paedophiles. It seems all sides in public life are now involved in a modern version of demonology, suspending rationality in the desperate hunt for some kind of horribleness we can cohere our disconnected society in opposition to. Ultimately, this ugly rush to condemn those who haven’t been convicted of a crime speaks to a widespread disregard for what is lost when someone is so condemned: freedom. We used to take seriously the process of convicting someone because we took seriously what they risked losing – their liberty. Not anymore. Liberty, life, justice, be damned – collective outrage is more important. Well, I have news for these twenty-first-century Salemites: Bill Cosby, we must presume, is innocent. And given that the passing of the statute of limitations means he’s very unlikely to be brought to court to face his accusers, he will remain innocent. I’m sorry if that gets in the way of your search for a demon to yell about, but that’s life: liberty and justice are more important than your weird psychological need for evil.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

Picture by: PA Images

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Topics USA


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