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.