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Accountability, Apology, and Bill Cosby

As of this writing, 16 women have come forward with similar narratives.

As of this writing, 16 women have come forward with similar narratives.

It’s more and more obvious that the entertainer Bill Cosby has conducted his private life in a shameful and criminal manner for many decades.

As of this writing, over a dozen women have come forward with allegations that are remarkably similar.

Some of the women complained decades ago that Bill Cosby assaulted them. They were systematically ignored, intimidated, bought off, or otherwise silenced. Others are now speaking publicly for the first time. I’ve listened to what many of these women have to say. I’ve watched Bill Cosby’s excruciating attempts to distance himself from these allegations.

“We don’t talk about that,” Cosby lectured an AP interviewer on November 6, 2015. That “we” speaks volumes.  It’s the “we” of sexism, power, and privilege.

I believe the women.

I never bought into all the Bill Cosby worship. When anyone tries that hard to posture wholesomeness, I get skeptical. Bill Cosby is a man who prospered in a time, culture, and industry that creates as much pretense as it offers temptations. Everyone has secrets. I assumed that Cosby probably had his share.

Still, I was unprepared for the ugliness and recklessness of his alleged sexual predation. If we accept—as I do—that the narrative of the accusers is substantially accurate, Cosby is not only a serial rapist but one who dispensed with the traditional seduction patterns of the Hollywood casting couch in favor of violence: drugging young women into helplessness. Such behavior is cruel, cowardly, and breathtakingly reprehensible.

As of this writing, Cosby’s strategy has been to remain silent.

Silence can no longer shield the rich and powerful from the storm. There is nowhere for Cosby to run and nowhere for him to hide.

Accountability and Bill Cosby are on a collision course. The next person he will come face to face with will be himself.

So what’s to be done?

Let me address what’s possible in the court of public opinion. The courts, prisons, and criminal punishment have a role to play, but there are more productive avenues for pursuing justice than just locking someone up. In any case, it appears that the statute of limitations for sexual assault and other possible criminal charges has expired.

The issue is now in the court of public opinion.

A Twitter "meme" campaign went horribly awry.

A Twitter “meme” campaign went horribly awry.

Bill Cosby has just one chance to demonstrate that the decency associated with his public persona was inspired by something real; that it was not entirely an act.

The only way to do that is for Cosby to, at long last, acknowledge that at various points in his career he betrayed, drugged, and raped a number of young women.  It will be in Cosby’s interest to specify a number. The media will quickly provide the world with such a number, so it’s better for Cosby to get all the facts out first.  This is the first step in accepting responsibility.

Second, he has to apologize. The apology needs to be in the form of a TV interview with someone like Oprah Winfrey or CNN’s Andersen Cooper. He has to be willing to answer questions. A prepared statement won’t do.  The phrase “I apologize” is not optional.

Cosby can’t hedge his bets or hide behind legalisms. Apology is about giving up an offender’s battle with history. It all has to come out, using the most direct language within the bounds of not further violating the survivors.

Bill Cosby should be on notice: he can’t charm his way out of this. He must represent himself as the very flawed man that he has spent a lifetime hiding.

The Cosby must commit to send handwritten apologies to each individual survivor who will accept one. He must commit to make himself available to meet in person with any survivor who requests such a meeting.

Third, he must provide restitution. Cosby must pledge most of his accumulated wealth to a process of restorative justice designed to help both the survivors and the offender move forward. The goal is accountability, responsibility, and as much transparency as the survivors can tolerate.

And, yes, punishment. The financial restitution must be seen to really hurt.

It is incumbent on Cosby to take the first step in offering financial restitution to the women. The offers should be in excess of what he thinks the women may demand.

Apology is not cost-free. It’s just less costly than the alternatives of denial and defensiveness. His lawyers will argue this point, but it’s true.

But isn’t that letting Cosby off too easily?

It’s not about Cosby.

It’s about the survivors and, to some extent, all of us who must bear some responsibility for creating such celebrity and not looking closely enough at its excesses.

When the survivors are asked what they now want, I hear the same thing: they want Cosby to accept responsibility. That’s the first thing.

After that, they want their experience validated. They want Cosby to apologize. Simply stated: they want to have the last word, something that Cosby’s fame, wealth, and privilege have denied them for decades. I have yet to hear a survivor say she wants Cosby to go to jail.

Taking responsibility.

This is the one gift that Cosby is uniquely capable of bestowing.

Effective apology means that both the offender and his victims get to move forward, though not necessarily together. In this case, the victims include the public whose trust has once again been shattered.

As for Cosby’s career, I think he needs to announce his immediate and irreversible retirement from show business. He’s done. This step is an integral part of his restitution.

If Cosby does all these things, he may well spend the few years remaining to him in dishonored peace, albeit in diminished circumstances.

Or he can resist.

And spend the rest of his life fighting civil lawsuits and feeding his lawyers.

Advice to Bill Cosby

Mr. Cosby, here’s a lesson in crisis management: The media love conflict. As long as there’s conflict, the media are all over it. But it takes two parties to have a conflict. So stop fighting. All you have to do is apologize, accept the fact that you are wrong, and that the accusers not only are justified in calling you a serial rapist, but that you agree with them.

The 24-hour news cycle has a short attention span. When the conflict goes away, the media tend to go away, too, in search of the next conflict. This doesn’t let you off the hook. It creates a space in which you can begin to earn back the trust your criminality has destroyed.

It’s to everyone’s interest to conduct these conversations in private, letting the women alone dictate public statements. Whatever little redemption can come out of this situation will be undermined in the glare of media.

Contrition and surrender represent your only security. Yes, it’s a leap of faith for celebrities (well, anyone) to make themselves so vulnerable. That’s the paradox. Only in vulnerability can you express whatever strength of character and grace you have left to offer the world.

It’s not well known that you earned a doctorate in education. So you—Bill Cosby, Ph.D.—now confront a teachable moment you have spent your whole life desperately avoiding. The next few weeks will reveal who the real Bill Cosby really is.


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