Dancing on Bill Cosby’s Grave
This past Thursday, a Pennsylvania jury found Bill Cosby guilty of three counts of aggravated indecent assault for drugging and sexually assaulting Andrea Constand at his home in a Philadelphia suburb in 2004. But please excuse me if I am not standing up pumping my fist into the air and shouting “Hallelujah!” I’m afraid that dancing on someone else’s grave just isn’t my thing.
Of course what Bill Cosby did was contemptible. It should be intuitively clear that sexual contact with another person without their conscious, able-minded consent is such an affront to our society’s fundamental moral principles and, more importantly, to another’s basic human rights that there must be meaningful consequences for these transgressions. There are numerous theories regarding various principles of justification for societally-enforced criminal punishment, but the one that appeals to me most is that of deterrence. Bill Cosby, even at the age eighty, must face a consequence, must go to jail for the rest of his life, in order to serve as a reminder to those that might otherwise contemplate committing a like crime that there is a heavy price to pay should they choose to do so. While it would be idyllic to live in a world where no one needs such a deterrent to refrain from damaging another person so selfishly and thoughtlessly, studies suggest tough punishments for heinous crimes do help to curb these behaviors, and if a single sexually predatory crime is prevented by putting Cosby in jail until the day he dies, well, I’m all for throwing away the key.
But please don’t expect me to be happy about it. I’m not. This is a sad day. It’s sad because a man who made us all smile, who gave us the gifts of joy and laughter, has tragically fallen from the pedestal of American icon. Nothing can take away those moments Cosby gave us. No matter how despicable you find his conduct now in light of these horrendous revelations, those jokes and our consequent entertainment still existed. So no, I’m not happy to subsequently see him spend his last years on Earth living in a prison cell as a reviled sexual predator, even though I know that he must for the good of a better society.
Those that are rejoicing at the news of Cosby’s sentencing are proponents of a different principle of justification for punishment known as restorative justice, in which the injured party or community as a whole are made better by the punishment incurred by the offender. But how are the lives of Andrea Constand or any of the countless others who Cosby victimized made any better by the sentence he was handed down last Thursday? Some would suggest that his conviction and ensuing punishment will give them closure and a sense of peace. But how is someone else’s agony, even if deserved, going to bring a victim of sexual assault any sense of peace? Their sense of closure and acceptance, in order to be effective and healthy, needs to come from themselves on their own terms. Allowing their mental and spiritual health to be dependent upon the outcome for the perpetrator still has the consequence of ceding that power of autonomy to the perpetrator instead of empowering the victim to move forward in their life in the fashion and time line that best fits their own recovery needs.
Neither our community nor his victims are made any better by watching an eighty year old man rot in prison for his remaining days. To gain joy from this is engaging in nothing less than bitterness and vengeance. But vengeance, by its very definition, is holding onto anger, and as the Buddha is quoted as saying, “Holding on to anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of harming another; you end up getting burned.”
Still another theory of justification for punishment comes from the notion of retribution in which the offender is given a consequence for their actions because they have been deserved. Does Cosby deserve to go to prison for the rest of his life? Probably. I’m loathe to try to judge what another person does or does not “deserve” by parsing out their poorest moral choices across the continuum of a lifetime of which I am largely unaware, but numerous sexual assaults over the course of decades of relationships with women seem to suggest that Cosby deserves the fate he has in front of him. But I guess I’m warning against finding satisfaction in that justice. There’s a reason why Lady Justice wears a blindfold: Just because she needs to meet out justice doesn’t mean she wants to see that shit. She isn’t jumping up and down while waving a celebratory finger in the face of the convicted criminal she has just sentenced. That’s because She knows that, despite their heinous deeds, the criminal too is a human being whose fall from social standing is a tragedy to be lamented. She judges All of us with equanimity and indifference. We should try to do the same.
Cosby will have to spend the rest of his life knowing that he will forever be remembered not for his accomplishments as a writer and comedian or his charity work on behalf of Temple University, his alma mater, or other organizations, but rather for the truly insidious acts he committed against these unfortunate women. He may very well deserve that end, but rejoicing in his unfortunate circumstances only takes away from our own humanity. We are better off letting go of the anger that fuels our need for vengeance and focusing instead on the acceptance that will propel us forward. Otherwise, that hot coal of anger that the Buddha talks about is likely to leave a pretty nasty burn mark on our unsuspecting hand.
Steven Craig is the author of the best-selling novel WAITING FOR TODAY, as well as numerous published poems, short stories, and dramatic works. Read his blog TRUTH: in 1000 Words or Less every THURSDAY at www.waitingfortoday.com