Proof: Bill Cosby


Update: for some people, even Cosby’s own words don’t count as proof because can you really ever PROVE that rape happened? (rhetorical question)

Something I’m especially interested in is what actually counts as “proof.” I’ve written about this in detail on this blog twice before: once about female scientists saying they faced discrimination, the other time about the dismissal of the experiences of minority students at the University of Texas.

I’m reminded of all of this following yesterday’s news (via the AP):

Bill Cosby testified in 2005 that he got Quaaludes with the intent of giving them to young women he wanted to have sex with, and he admitted giving the sedative to at least one woman and “other people,” according to documents obtained Monday by The Associated Press.

First, a note: Legally, you can’t drug someone and then “have sex” with them. If you drug someone, the only (il)legal sexual thing that can happen after that is rape. You don’t drug someone you “want to have sex with” as that is impossible, legally, to do. You drug someone you want to rape.

The media needs to learn how to talk about rape as rape, as violence, as the lack of consent, as what it actually is.

Second, and the point of this post, is what is best represented by what the singer and actress Jill Scott tweeted in response to this news about Cosby (she faced warranted criticism a while back for dismissing the dozens of accounts by women about Cosby drugging and either attempting to rape or raping them):

the tweet reads: "About Bill Cosby. Sadly his own testimony offers PROOF of terrible deeds, which is ALL I have ever required to believe the accusations."

[the tweet reads: “About Bill Cosby. Sadly his own testimony offers PROOF of terrible deeds, which is ALL I have ever required to believe the accusations.”]

It’s easy to focus on Scott as an isolated individual who said something troubling, but her idea about “PROOF” is not some outlier idea. It is exactly how most people think about rape victims and the Truth of their statements. They are not “proof” and never will be. It’s the same reason people don’t believe woman after woman scientist who says she has faced discrimination until a study backs them up. It’s the same reason people don’t believe minority university students when they discuss how they are treated on campus and how they feel about that.

I’m now just going to quote myself:

But I refuse to stop pushing on the idea of how limited our definition is of good “evidence” as well as the broad range of what is dismissed as “hearsay.” Yes, there have to be limits – I’m not some sort of evidence anarchist. But the limits we have in place disproportionately negatively affect those whose voices and experiences are already marginalized.

It is no coincidence that science and law share common terms. Rose-Mary Sargent, in The Diffident Naturalist: Robert Boyle and the Philosophy of Experiment, has argued that in the seventeenth-century, when experimental science as we know it was first being practiced widely and seen as a legitimate way in which to interrogate the world, scientists (I use that loosely when discussing the early moden period) turned to the language of the law to describe their work. This was especially true in England where common law played a large role. Under common law, precedence is central to determining the outcome of trials. As Sargent has argued, “Experience must form the foundation of the law, because only from experience could one come to the knowledge necessary for rational legal decisions….This same broad notion of experience, and the type of demonstration grounded upon it, played an integral role in the attempts by English experimentalists to justify the knowledge-producing character of their enterprise.”

For both science and the law, knowledge is borne from experience, from what has come before. But what counts as “knowledge”? How does one measure what is good evidence? Who determines which knowledge is valid and which extraneous? Perhaps even more so for this blog post, what experiences inform or create or reveal that knowledge? Or even whose experiences?

Whether it is minority students in a university stating that they feel isolated or female scientists saying they face gender bias in their careers, they run up against these powerful institutions of law and science that demand better proof, more quantifiable evidence, harder facts.

The Cosby cases (and most high-profile rape or sexual assault cases) show us how these ideas about “proof” and “evidence” in law and science bleed out into our everyday lives so that people are conditioned to continually and immediately dismiss and, in turn, harm the very people who have already been violated (part of what bothers me to no end when people cry about the “court of public opinion” as if it isn’t guided by similar principles that tend to be a disadvantage to victims).

Rape victims came out of the woodwork by the dozen and still, people demanded better proof, more evidence, harder facts. Never were those the words of another woman, another victim. Turns out only the words of a singular man – the very perpetrator at the heart of these cases – are what counted for many people, over and above dozens of victims who told similar stories about what he did for years.

Back when it was only – ONLY – fifteen women who had come forward, both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Bomani Jones wrote pieces where they told us that most certainly this was a slam dunk case because of the “sheer volume” of women who came forward.

Well, that’s not how proof works, is it?

“Proof” is something granted most often to those who already hold privilege and power in the particular situation. That’s never victims of rape or sexual assault. Their words are never “proof.”

Where do we go from here?

Comments are closed.