To Believe or Not Believe Bill Cosby's Accusers

Why the accusations against him do not constitute mob mentality

Posted Nov 24, 2014

“I want people to think about choices,” Bill Cosby once said, and from the media blitzkrieg that’s suddenly transformed him from lionized to vilified, it appears that it’s high time he think about his. Whether it’s the choices he made in how he treated women, to the choices he now makes in falling silent (word up, Dr. Cosby, no one’s making “innuendos,” they’re coming straight out and saying that you raped them), it’s high time Cosby own up to his bad behavior. If, as some suggest, Cosby is innocent of the rape allegations against him, and is instead a victim of women who willingly took drugs he unlawfully offered them and willingly took off their clothes to please him, then he is, at best, a philandering lout who passes out drugs and treats women like toys he no longer wants to play with. If that’s the case, then it’s high time he do some introspection because his behavior has been so discomforting to others that it’s been badly misconstrued.

On the other hand if, as nearly two dozen women suggest, he is a serial rapist who should be imprisoned, not ending his days in the luxury of his Great Gatsby lifestyle, then he would be well served to reflect on the choices he made to engage in criminal behavior of the worst kind. The acts he has been accused of are violent, cruel, and repetitive, and a far cry more repulsive than hanging out on street corners swearing and smoking pot, as he so often castigates urban youth.

But are the accusations to be believed? Is Cosby being unjustly tried in the media with no presumption of innocence? I have been outspoken in my concern that celebrities, or anyone who finds themselves unjustly accused in the public eye, can be destroyed by accusation alone. I have expressed my concerns over the vilification of Paula Deen, and the demonization of Woody Allen. Deen’s admitted use of racially offensive language years prior led to a torrent of condemnation and professional damage, rather than a teachable moment. The escalating aggression against her knew no bounds, while the accusations themselves were primarily focused on her character. In contrast, the accusations against Woody Allen were grave, but limited to those of a single young woman speaking of a time when she was a child during an acrimonious divorce. A single accusation that may well have been a false memory was taken as fact by a media that at the very same time lauded Cosby and ignored the many accusations made against him, not by a pretty young woman of famed parentage but by, at that time, already over a dozen unknown middle-aged women past their youthful prime.

Yet in the case of the accusations against Bill Cosby, it’s time we prick up our ears. Cosby was presumed innocent by the media for decades when it silenced his accusers, honored and feted him and ignored all the rumors. Now, thanks to a comedy skit, that presumption of innocence is giving way to serious concern that a dangerous, predatory criminal has used the power of his wealth and celebrity to drug and rape without remorse, accountability or restraint.

“The absolute truth,” Cosby once said, “is that there is no power in celebrity.” If that be the case, then let the media treat him as they would anyone else living in the community who has been accused by nearly two dozen women of rape and poisoning, and start investigating the allegations. But why should the women be believed? Just because someone cries rape, doesn’t make it so. And just because many people say it, doesn’t make it so, if there is sudden fame and profit to be had in making the accusations.

Mob hysteria has long been known to trigger an onslaught of false accusations, as multiple people join in and testify to atrocities the target allegedly committed, revising their memories to make past experiences fit the paradigm of accusation, whether that be witchcraft, sex abuse by daycare workers, or politically incorrect thinking. But in such cases, there is a specific pattern that the accusations take. When made in large numbers, they are almost always made by or on behalf of children, mentally disabled, or other groups who are highly suggestible and/or under strong social pressure to align their perceptions with those of others in a position of authority.

When false but collective accusations are made by adults, the details will tend to mimic each other, with little to no variation if they come at or about the same time, and increasingly bizarre behavior alleged over time; they will often be made by people who may have had no contact at all with the target; they will be limited to a handful at most; and if there is no profit to be directly made by the accusations, there will be someone in a position of power over the accusers who has a vested interest in the outcome. Workplace mobbing is just such a context where a person may find themselves falsely accused of sexual harassment, discrimination or threatening behavior, and be stunned to discover that the accusations multiply and intensify. But when that happens, those making the accusations are under the authority of those in organizational power who have publicly communicated that they want the target gone, and while gossip might swirl unrestrained, only a handful will come forward with false accusations.

Sixteen, seventeen, or eighteen people coming forward with allegations is a different story altogether, especially when those making the allegations are not under the authority or influence of anyone in power. There may now be a social tide making allegations against Cosby fertile ground, but there is no one in power or influence over the accusers who stands to gain from Cosby’s downfall. Moreover, when the general actions that are alleged are consistent, but significant details vary (he placed a hand on his groin, he forced oral sex, he compelled stimulation of his penis, he climbed on top and penetrated) the accusations become more credible, not less so, because human behavior does vary. We tend to behave in predictable and patterned ways, but the details of our behaviors will deviate to fit changing contexts, moods and factors. Had every woman who accused Cosby said he used the exact same words, done the exact same thing, then it would be more suspect. But the variations in detail, along with the overall pattern, are compelling. Moreover, the accusations have increased in number, but the nature of the accusations has not become increasingly bizarre. They continue to stick to the same theme of drugging, removing clothing, groping or raping. No new weapons, no increasingly violent behavior, none of the escalating patterns that characterize false rumors that morph into outright accusations.

To better understand the distinction between credible and suspect accusations made by more than one accuser, let’s turn to another case of collective accusation against a celebrated African American male, the statutory rape allegations against puppeteer Kevin Clash, the brilliant artist who brought us Sesame Street’s Elmo. In November of 2012, a 23 year old man, Sheldon Stevens, accused Clash of initiating a sexual relationship with him which began, he alleged, when Stevens was 16 years old. Clash admitted he was in a sexual relationship with Stevens, but said that it was consensual and began when Stevens was an adult. Stevens, who was later convicted of stealing pension checks, revoked the allegation, only to reinstate it when another young man emerged, and then another, making similar accusations and filing lawsuits against Clash. None claimed to have been forcefully raped, but all claimed to have been under the age of 18 and coerced into a sexual relationship which was consistently described as “affectionate.” All three lawsuits were tossed out because they were past the statute of limitations, while Clash was forced to resign from Sesame Street and his career was effectively destroyed. The media reported the accusations, but never engaged in the vilification that has characterized the treatment of Deen, Allen, and now seemingly, Cosby. So what makes the accusations against Clash any less credible than the allegations against Cosby?

No one can know with certainty whether Clash engaged in sexual relationships with young men he knew to be teenagers. But the accusations were directly tied to monetary profit—each filed a lawsuit seeking monetary gain. In contrast, only one of Cosby’s accusers has sought monetary gain through a lawsuit, and she did not do so until after going to the police (though another, Louisa Moritz, has indicated she is hoping to persuade others to join her in a class action suit against Cosby; none has thus far indicated that she will do so). Moreover, the accusations against Clash stopped abruptly, once the lawsuits were thrown out. Had Clash been the predatory pedophile the lawsuits suggested he was, it is highly likely that just as happened with Cosby, many more alleged victims would have come forward, uncontent to be silenced just because monetary reward was no longer on the table.

In short, the accusations against Clash, while plausible, are also suspect because they came at a time when money could be made and they stopped as abruptly as they started. In contrast, the allegations against Cosby have been made by nearly two dozen professional women who have little to nothing to gain from the accusations, and quite a bit to lose. The claims against Clash are that he “groomed” the accusers “with attention and affection.” The claims against Cosby are that he insulted, humiliated, drugged and raped women. Those are not accusations lending themselves to opportunistic profit. Those are serious accusations of felony crimes that while one or two women might falsely make, nearly twenty mature and professional women will not make.

“Civilization had too many rules for me, so I did my best to rewrite them,” Bill Cosby once said, and from the looks of things, he didn’t just rewrite the rules, he tossed them out altogether. But the rules do apply to him, as well, and it’s high time he be held accountable. It may be well past the time for any accountability in the courtroom, but accountability to the women who stand before him in the public eye is long overdue. “I think you need to make responsibility something that’s not just a word,” Cosby’s preached. It’s time he does just that, and own up to how he’s treated women.