What putting Bill Cosby on trial can - and can't - do

By Alyssa Rosenberg comment

The news that Bill Cosby, after years of attempts to discredit the legion of women who have accused him of rape, will stand trial for aggravated indecent sexual assault this summer is long overdue.

The judge's ruling sending Cosby to trial feels significant not simply because the women who allege that Cosby attacked them have waged long fights to be taken seriously, nor because it's a relief that Andrea Constand, at least, will get her day in court.

This ruling comes at a moment of renewed attention to both the ways the legal system has failed in rape cases and the ways in which alternative attempts to adjudicate such cases can't produce the same clear, just outcomes the law is supposed to provide.

Cosby, of course, wasn't the subject of one of the college disciplinary proceedings that have come under so much scrutiny and prompted so much dissatisfaction. But the public argument about whether he is guilty, whether television networks should continue to work with him in the absence of a legal resolution of the charges against him, and how audiences ought to approach his work has been indefinite, and at times deeply discouraging.

A single trial won't address all the allegations that Cosby faces, and it won't provide an automatic answer to the cultural questions that are tied up in the idea that Cosby might be both a Hollywood trailblazer and a serial rapist.

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But it might help break the deadlock that protected Cosby both legally and professionally for so long, the same sort of stasis that has made Woody Allen a continuing flash point without influencing his ability to work.

I should note that though a trial might provide a verdict, it won't necessarily produce a universal consensus about Cosby's guilt or innocence. The renewed attention to OJ Simpson's trial in the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman is a powerful reminder that while trials can send people to jail or spare them from imprisonment, the court of public opinion has its own deliberative processes and renders its own verdicts.

And given how long it took for Cosby's accusers to be heard, I'm sure the idea that he is innocent will persist in some quarters no matter what a jury decides.

But a verdict is at least a new piece of information. And from the perspective of someone who writes about culture, having a court case and a verdict in one of the Cosby cases might allow our conversations about his art to move forward.

I in no way mean to suggest that the predicaments that cultural consumers face when important artists are accused of grave misdeeds are in any way comparable to the agony that Cosby's accusers feel. But fortunately for the vast majority of us, Cosby's work is the only way we'll interact with him. And if his cultural influence is diffuse, it is still significant, and likely to persist in some form or other whether he himself retains his liberty.

None of which is to say that a guilty verdict means that all copies of I Spy, The Cosby Show and any other work that bears Cosby's face or imprimatur should automatically be cast into the sea.

For one thing, other people starred in and helped produce those works. For another, declaring that we should shun the work of anyone convicted of a crime is both a nonsensical approach to art, which exists independent of its creators, and incompatible with a commitment to a restorative justice system.

But it might make it easier to separate the very difficult questions about how to approach and interpret Cosby's work from our attempts to adjudicate his guilt or innocence in the absence of the legal process.

If this piece is full of uncertainty and caveats, it's because these are tremendously complex and consequential questions, and we ought to approach them seriously and carefully. I don't have the answers; just a platform that I can use to propose some terms for a potential conversation. But with so much to debate, even one small step toward a legal resolution - and toward justice - is progress.

- Washington Post

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