Last week I talked about how the “outrage culture” that it’s trendy to bash these days—which included the outrage against Brendan Eich, Chick-fil-A, and other “political correctness gone mad” headlines—played a starring role in getting same-sex marriage from unachievable dream to inevitable reality.
That seems to be a controversial thesis, with lots of people lecturing me that no, same-sex marriage was a slow build of changing hearts and minds that had nothing to do with boycotts, name-and-shame campaigns, or loudmouths on Twitter. It was just a coincidence that from 2000 to 2008 we saw same-sex marriage get drubbed routinely in the polls. It’s just weird, freaky happenstance that the groundswell of anger post-Prop 8 and the supposedly “unprecedented” step of directly targeting individual donors for protest led to everyone suddenly declaring their public support for same-sex marriage one election cycle later.
But how about this? We’re finally talking about Bill Cosby. We’re just now finding out that Bill Cosby outright admitted to using illicit drugs to rape women. We’re finding out that he admitted this in court and under oath, and yet despite this his legal team was able to keep him from experiencing any legal consequences for his actions—and was able to keep those records sealed from the eyes of the public.
We’re learning that this happened 10 fucking years ago, and that there was a nine-year gap between the trial in which Cosby gave this testimony, in 2005, and the media suddenly regaining interest in this story in 2014.
Assuming that you’re not one of the apologists still bizarrely claiming that there’s a possible other side to the story—that there’s any way at all to justify taking out fake prescriptions for a date rape drug and then getting women to take it to make them have sex with you—then that nine-year hiatus should really upset you.
That nine-year hiatus is nine years of failure, nine years of shame. Nine years of a goddamn sexual predator touring around doing stand-up, giving the commencement address at Carnegie Mellon in 2007, getting the Mark Twain Prize in 2009, writing an enormously condescending message for black America entitled Come On, People: On the Path from Victims to Victors.
Nine years in which we loudly signaled to Cosby’s accusers and their friends and families that their concerns didn’t matter to us. Nine years of letting a rapist lecture kids on respectability politics.
And really, it looked like it might’ve gone on that way forever. We weren’t “withholding judgment” or “waiting for more evidence to come in” about the Cosby allegations. We were straight-up ignoring the allegations, pretending they never happened, letting the issue die. I remember getting in heated debates in college about Cosby’s message in his infamous “Pound Cake” speech and his alleged sex crimes never once coming up. I remember reading a forlorn op-ed published a few years ago, in 2011 or 2012, asking why everyone had just “forgotten” about the Cosby allegations—because a world in which Cliff Huxtable was a monster was a world we were unwilling to live in. (Sadly, and ironically, I can no longer find that op-ed under the avalanche of cookie-cutter Cosby condemnation pieces that now stuff Google.)
You know who got the ball rolling on this reexamination of Cosby in 2014? A mean-spirited joke by Hannibal Buress that the handwringing critics of outrage culture would probably call “Twitter bait.”
It wasn’t that Cosby was embarking on a new relationship, nor starting a major new project, nor even writing yet another book. It was just a non-investigative journalist mentioning something in his comedy routine that struck a nerve because he was saying something everyone already kind of knew, but refused to think about. The kind of thing that, in 2005, would’ve resulted in a flurry of commentary on Oh No They Didn’t but without the widespread adoption of social media that could turn it into a forest fire.
The media tried to keep on ignoring the story. It didn’t happen all at once. The Cosby accusations became a Thing as a result of a flood of angry tweets and comments appearing every time he made a public appearance, as a result of a flood of public support making it easier and easier for new accusers to step up.
Cosby’s initial accusers tried and failed to get accusations to stick against America’s Dad. The state’s attorneys tried and failed. Feminist writers tried and failed, whisper campaigns among the Hollywood in-crowd tried and failed. But finally, in 2015, it gets to the point where NBC cancels Cosby’s new show and Netflix pulls Cosby’s comedy special and finally Judge Eduardo Robreno gives in to the pressure to let people see the damning 10-year-old court records.
Be honest about who’s responsible for finally dragging Bill Cosby to some semblance of public account for his actions. It’s not that we suddenly realized rape was bad, it’s not that Cosby suddenly made some strategic error. It’s not that Hannibal Burress is a great orator for the ages.
It was social media. It was “outrage culture.”
So it goes with so many stories in the modern world. Have we seen a sudden uptick in police brutality against black Americans? Is this a new crisis? Of course not. What there’s been is a sudden uptick of is people documenting police brutality with their smartphones and using social media to refuse to let the issue die.
Was the 2014 Isla Vista shooting some new, shocking event? Was it previously unthinkable that acts of murderous violence might be motivated by misogyny and toxic masculinity? Apparently not, because it happened over and over and over and over again, and every time there was a flurry of think pieces from feminist writers trying to start a national conversation only for it to fizzle out.
Why do we have #BlackLivesMatter and #YesAllWomen? Because of Twitter. Because of the democratizing power of individuals, unconstrained by gatekeepers, keeping up the noise, keeping up the heat, refusing to let stories die.
Are these tools perfect? Is the free market of ideas leading us into a new utopia? Of course not. Any democratizing tool will, as is the nature of democracy, be abused by terrible people. I’ve talked before about how there are serious problems with how social media virality works. I don’t particularly think piling on individual racist tweets helps anyone. I think there have been tragic instances when social media has gotten it terribly wrong.
I think we’re still working through the best practices of radically decentralized media. Amplifying everyone’s voice gives a disturbing amount of power to disturbing people that gatekeepers used to have good reasons to exclude. I sympathize with people who defend the idea of more robust privacy protections online, the “right to be forgotten,” ways to moderate kneejerk mobs.
But there’s no putting this genie back in the bottle. And when people hark back to a better, more civil era before “outrage culture” they’re speaking from a place of tremendous privilege.
Want to fearmonger about the terrible dystopia that awaits us due to “political correctness gone mad?” Think about the dystopia we were already living in. One where, despite dozens of women telling their stories, despite Cosby going on the record under oath as giving women drugs to have sex with them, a famous man’s wealth, power, and public image gave him a “right to be forgotten” for a decade.
Think about the dystopia where every woman beaten or murdered by a man was considered business as usual by the news media, where Isla Vista was just a “bizarre story of the day,” where Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown and Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray shed their blood in vain, to be forgotten as just another statistic. Think about all the couples being told their partnership was illegitimate in order to protect the Democrats’ electoral coalition, and making dark jokes about continuing to be told this well into the 21st century.
The people who downplayed Bill Cosby’s crimes and let the story die didn’t even have the excuse of “liberal” marriage equality opponents who wanted to push aside the cause for a more convenient season in order to keep winning elections right now. They just found that it was uncomfortable—uncivil—to keep saying mean things about a public figure whose fictional persona made people happy.
When media gatekeepers condemn outrage culture, they’re telling us that they know better than us. They’re saying that we can’t be trusted with the megaphone and they can. They speak with the voice of the No on eight top-down organizers making carefully focus-grouped ads that avoid even saying the words “gay” or “same-sex” to avoid alienating people.
The authorities wave in our faces cautionary tales of times journalists got a story about rape wrong to pressure us to sit down, shut up, and know our place, to trust them to get it right, to leave accused rapists alone after due process has supposedly cleared them of wrongdoing—ignoring the times they’ve been caught getting it horribly wrong themselves, ignoring that we have right before our eyes a case of a man outright admitting to rape and due process agreeing to keep his secrets and let him walk free.
People ask me all the time if the social gains from “outrage” are worth the price. I reply that outrage isn’t new, but the monopoly on outrage by a few privileged gatekeepers is ending, and the “civility” and “calm” engendered by that monopoly is not and never has been worth its very, very high price.