All the attributes associated with the career of Bill Cosby, the last one may very well be the one that places the exclamation point on his career: convicted felon.
The guilty verdict handed down to Bill Cosby for sexual assault, though not surprising in the abstract, did come as a visceral shock. For decades, in the annals of Hollywood, Cosby’s behavior was one of its worst-kept secrets. More than 60 women accused him of sexual impropriety, but as a legally blind octogenarian with iconic celebrity status and vast resources, it seemed Cosby would be allowed to run out the clock.
Perhaps it was the 90 seconds in a comedic routine by Hannibal Buress about Cosby’s rape history that went viral coupled with the unprecedented momentum of the #MeToo movement that altered Cosby’s fortunes.
Buress dropped a pebble into seemingly calm waters, creating concentric circles reigniting the storm Cosby erroneously believed he had weathered.
Time finally caught up with Cosby. Though hardly sobering satisfaction to his myriad victims, but time had already dismantled the image of Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable, the character Cosby played in his 1980s hit sitcom. Long before the guilty verdict was rendered, “America’s Dad” had been unceremoniously eulogized as a pariah in the court of public opinion with no possibility for redemption.
Later in his career, Cosby used his Huxtable alter ego to justify his role as public moralist, criticizing low-income black people for their perceived failures. It prompted racial discussions under the linear title: “Is Bill Cosby Right?”
With the benefit of hindsight, we can see Cosby’s cynical obfuscation at work — Huxtable the public moralist pacifying, maybe even justifying, the behavior of Cosby the rapist. His decades of legal rope-a-dope ultimately proved inadequate for the justice system.
I hesitate to call the verdict justice, not because I believe Cosby was somehow railroaded — he wasn’t.
In fact, he has skipped along, too long, parlaying an image that was 180 degrees from reality, embolden by what seemed like a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. But calling the verdict justice feels so inadequate.
It is a common refrain to demand justice for some heinous event. We hear it in the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, as well as the over-zealous district attorney who is seeking the death penalty.
Justice is frequently touted as a desired outcome, but it is, at best, an insufficient substitute. There may be no word better suited, but justice falls miserably short.
What is justice? Assuming our understanding of the word in this context as the legal or philosophical theory by which fairness is administered, how can a single verdict become tantamount to justice?
I do not take issue with the women who declared justice was served in the Cosby verdict. I’m simply offering there are no words in the American lexicon that are appropriate when human dignity has been violated.
However defined, any situation that violates human dignity is void of a subsequent outcome that would be deemed commensurate in contrast to the infraction. There are no words that will assuage the pain that many feel, and will continue to feel, as a result of Cosby’s vile behavior. The violation of human dignity is an unfathomable pain known only to those who must periodically endure its bitter aftertaste.
What word best captures something so painful that, in the case of Cosby, some of his victims have kept it concealed for decades? The status quo wonders why it took so long to come forward, which is a logical question reserved for anyone possessing the luxury of not comprehending the magnitude of the situation.
The status quo assumes the role, if not of a Cosby apologist, certainly of a willing participant, contextualizing his behavior as if the victim played a part in the perpetrator’s behavior.
When human dignity is violated, the best one can attain is approximate justice. When an individual has been wrongly convicted and incarcerated, does monetary compensation for the past wrong equate to justice?
Justice must be more than an a la carte outcome.
Though we can never achieve complete justice for violations of human dignity, it should never again require more women than an NFL roster telling the same story to be believed.
Hopefully, the Cosby conviction will mean the genie is never going back in the bottle. Perhaps justice in our contemporary context is indefinable because our focus is misplaced. Instead of an outcome desired by those whose dignity has been violated, maybe the true measure of justice will be found with those who will not have to wait decades to tell their story, to be heard, and to be believed.
Rev. Byron Williams is one of the leading public theologians in the nation. He is a columnist, author, and adjunct professor at Wake Forest University. He is also host of the NPR-affiliated broadcast The Public Morality. He is the author of Strip Mall Patriotism, 1963: The Year of Hope and Hostility, and the forthcoming The Radical Declaration: An Enlightened Ideal Learn more >