|Bill Cosby being led in for arraignment|
Bill Cosby’s conviction for drugging and raping a Temple University staff member culminates a half-century struggle that never should’ve happened. But it does something more: it represents a rare situation during the current realignment over sexual mores and our definition of rape, in which an accusation follows through to a conviction. Historically, most accused rapists don’t face trial, and fewer face prison. Though our awareness of rape is evolving, our definition of culpability, sadly, isn’t.
We’re clearly witnessing a long-overdue shakeout of American sexual values. We’ve historically been willing to disregard accusations of rape and other sexual violence from famous people, from David Bowie to Bill Clinton, while using rape accusations to poor, black, and other outsider groups who make themselves inconveniently visible. Perhaps we can redress some of the historical injustices of our society. But hopefully, if Cosby’s trial teaches us anything, it’s that justice moves very, very slowly.
My concern with today’s realignment, is that frequently, mass-media justice moves hastily. Consider the Aziz Ansari story. A woman lobbed a 3000-word, gorily detailed accusation against him, pundits from the Internet commentariat argued about what the accusation meant, and then… nothing. The story burned out as quickly as it arose. We still don’t know if Ansari committed an offense, or poorly communicated his desire to get laid. It starts to smell like a moral panic.
The term “moral panic” has great weight in social sciences, but lacks any agreed-upon definition. For our purposes, let’s define a moral panic as a situation where the response to a perceived offense significantly outweighs any real or perceived harm caused by that offense, and where that response gives responders an in-group feeling of being unified in righteousness. Thus a moral panic doesn’t just refute a specious harm; it also creates a perceived group identity.
It’s easy to point fingers at these situations. We have clearly measurable incidents of state-based injustice, where people who were measurably not guilty suffered official punishment, even execution. What about, say, Justine Sacco’s tweets? Experts continue to debate whether Sacco’s notorious tweet was actually racist, or a South Park-like satire written in a character voice. What matters is, public outrage carried the debate, and Sacco couldn’t work, shop, or show her face for five years.
This model partly applies, here. Partly. When public censure clings to the guilty, that isn’t moral panic. Louis CK and Matt Lauer have admitted the transgressions they’re accused of, and while they might earn redemption eventually, that time hasn’t come yet. Same applies for Kevin Spacey’s mumbling non-denial. But Garrison Keillor still insists he isn’t guilty of his accusations, and his distributor has aggressively purged all references from their records, even renaming his former show.
Please be assured: in calling this situation a potential moral panic, I’m not calling the accusations wrong, or the accusers liars. True justice requires taking all accusations seriously. But that doesn’t mean all accusations are true, either; to give one over-the-top example, we now know that Emmett Till, the most famous lynching victim in history, was falsely accused. During America’s lynching era, rape was the most common accusation used to justify racially motivated political violence.
We cannot demonstrate any such process with, say, Garrison Keillor. At this writing, Keillor’s former employer, Minnesota Public Radio, still hasn’t revealed the accusations that got Keillor ostracized. I admit, it’s hyperbolic to compare publicly scolding a celebrity with a racist lynching. But on one level they’re comparable: the process is invisible. MPR panicked, morally. Without slow deliberation, we’ll never know if the course of justice ran straight this time. That’s the risk we face.