We have lost an American treasure to a fate far worse than death. Comedy legend Bill Cosby sullied his name and the minds of all who revered him, and the internet has been a vigil for all to react to losing America’s greatest TV dad to an unsettling number of sexual assault accusations. Many of the responses–memes, tweets, etc.–have come from people choosing to arm themselves with humor, the same weapon that gave Cosby power in the first place. And humor in the face of profound grief and confusion does, as always, can deliver a modicum of collective consolation.
However, a concern looms as we continue to process such an unexpected disappointment: does the choice to make light of this painful ordeal help us fully cope, or does it rob us of a moment in which we can learn how to manage life’s complications in a way we are never encouraged to as a culture?
The sheer volume of tough questions following this scandal is hardly inviting. And the challenge of definitively answering those questions compounds how daunting they are because any resolution still reminds us of great loss. For example, “Can we ever watch The Cosby Show again without being sad?” “Can we or should we discount an entire life’s work because the guy who did that work did some terrible things? Can we separate them? Should we?” “Is heinous behavior inextricably linked to Cosby’s genius in ways no one can fully know?” “Was Cosby’s persona always an overcompensation for a darker truth?”
And from those questions about how we view Cosby’s work from now on come questions of cultural accountability: “What does it say about us as a society that it took 40 years for Bill Cosby to have to answer for these allegations?” “What does it say about our culture that so many women didn’t think anyone would believe them?” “Why did it take another male comedian to bring this story into the collective consciousness while the victims stood by silenced for decades?”
Ultimately the most important outcome of this extended blip in the news cycle is for justice to be served in some measure for the women involved. In that respect, a cultural banishment of Bill Cosby might feel backhanded to those who mourn that special circumstances out of their control were what finally validated their experiences. But if increased suspicion of those we hold to high esteem means that we take all rape claims more seriously at the time that they happen, then maybe–in an admittedly complicated way–we can thank Bill Cosby for this one final lesson in being better.