Bill Cosby Didn’t Rape Me: Introspections on Abusive Power and Victimization

This is not a post about Bill Cosby. It is an article about abusive power because rape is always about power and not sex. This is an issue of equal importance to both men and women because abusive power spawns a culture of violence and a culture of victimization.

When I first heard that Bill Cosby had been accused of rape, I said to my husband "that can't be true." His response was "why not?" For me, the disbelief stemmed from Cosby’s public persona, one that developed over the course of some 40+ years. I wasn't alone with that reaction.

As I learned more beyond a single sound bite, as I learned that numerous women had come forward, providing a history of predatory behavior, I did indeed come to believe the veracity of the allegations. I also came to see this news story as not simply about Bill Cosby, but rather a story more generally about abusive power.

Abusive Power Protects Abusive Power

The rape allegations highlight the distinction between Bill Cosby the man and Bill Cosby the brand. As a brand, Bill Cosby is unparalleled, even among TV fathers. Some of us grew up with him, from Fat Albert, to actor-comedian, to pudding spokesperson, to Dr. Huxtable, to writer, and finally to the lecturer who has been given more than 15 honorary degrees or titles. Most people who "know" him, don’t know him as a man, but as a brand.

Over the years women have either: come forward and been dismissed, or have been discouraged from coming forward. Currently, more than a score of women have alleged rape. Who protected Cosby all those years? Who else knew and did not stop him? Who abetted the cowing and coercing of women into silence? Who, or rather how many and what group of people, were responsible for protecting the brand rather than the victims? Who quieted the allegations, changed the conversations?

Abusive Power Deflects Responsibility

If true, Cosby’s "problem" was most likely discussed at conference room tables and deliberately managed. Margaret Heffernan in her TED talk explains "willful blindness is a legal concept which means if there’s information that you could know, and you should know but somehow you manage not to know, then that deems that you’re willfully blind, that you have chosen not to know." In the age of Citizens United, wherein corporations are entitled to speech, Cosby's brand managers should also be asked to respond to the allegations, yet there has been little discussion of anyone being responsible except Cosby as an individual.

Abusive Power is the Antithesis of Love

In "Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape," Susan Brownmiller notes the importance of intimidation as a means of control. She posits that use of violence against some women serves as a tool of intimidation against all women. This use of violence as a mechanism of control is, of course, not limited to rape. The protests in Ferguson, MO., #BlackLivesMatter, and other recent examples show that police use of excessive violence is sending a message to entire communities of color. The recent excommunications from the LDS Church of Kate Kelley and John Delhin are also examples of control. Though both Kate Kelley and John Dehlin acted from places of love and compassion, their actions were perceived as challenges to Church authority.

When the recent rape accusations against Bill Cosby began, the counter-narrative was "he said, she said." Cosby was, after all, the very image of kindness, gentleness, respectability and common sense; the women must be wrong. Then the number of women's voices grew. On the one side, a powerful man, on the other side, women who said they'd had their autonomy taken from them and were powerless to resist.

Mahatma Gandhi's grandson Arun Gandhi writes that "nonviolence is based on five essential elements – love, respect, understanding, acceptance and appreciation." He, quoting his grandfather, goes on to say that violence extends beyond physical violence to include any form of oppression. As Christians, we are called by our faith to side with the powerless against the powerful.

When We Empathize With Abusive Power, We are Behaving Like Victims

Dissociation and self-blame are common reactions to rape. The invasion is so intolerable, the seemingly only way to cope is to say "that didn't happen to me" or "I must be at fault." Both are reactions to abusive power. Thinking "I am at fault" at least leaves me with a small degree of choice, that if I take responsibility, I can prevent it from happening again.

Both dissociation and taking blame deflect empathy from ourselves in favor of the abuser. When we witness injustice and decide to empathize with the perpetrator, we are inadvertently acting as victims ourselves. The mechanism is the same. It helps us feel like it can't happen to us.