One Supporter Turns Against Bill Cosby. Will Others Follow?

Photo: MediaPunch/REX Shutterstock.
Today is not a day for I-told-you-so. With yesterday's report that Bill Cosby had admitted to purchasing sedatives in order to sexually assault women, the media is jammed with knees jerked and fingers pointed. Those who decried Cosby early on feel vindicated and righteous, many expressing something akin to glee. On the other side are his high-profile supporters, nearly all of whom have remained silent thus far.

But last night, Jill Scott, one of Cosby's most vocal and adamant supporters, spoke out on Twitter with a clear (if defensive) change of tune. "I stood by a man I respected and loved," she tweeted. "I was wrong." Scott elaborated, "Sadly his own testimony offers PROOF of terrible deeds, which is ALL I have ever required to believe the accusations." She went on to defend her previous stance by alluding to societal biases against black men and the kangaroo court of social media, concluding, "I'm not sorry for standing by my mentor. I'm sorry the accusations Rtrue [sic]."

We may take issue with points in Scott's statement, but nothing trumps the fact that she spoke up at all. I told you so feels good to say, but it's useless in these circumstances. I was wrong — even when couched in caveats — is much more difficult and important.

Bystanders play a crucial role in cases of sexual assault, and not just when it comes to intervention or prevention. As with any trauma, the response a survivor receives has an enormous impact on the person's recovery or lack thereof. And with high-profile cases like this, we all become the bystanders. Anyone who forms an opinion makes a tacit choice: Will we be deniers, enablers, or victim-blamers? Or will we be allies?

Jill Scott effectively changed sides last night, a move that's likely caused her a fair amount of grief and considerable pride-swallowing. And problematic though it may be, she's laid the groundwork for others to join her. Cosby's other celebrity supporters, including Whoopi Goldberg, Phylicia Rashad, and Debbie Allen have yet to respond (we reached out to all three for comment). But as we've seen throughout these months of allegations, once one person is brave enough to speak the truth, others feel more capable of coming forward.

As with assault survivors, it's vitally important that we welcome those dissenting voices to speak up, for Scott's statements have also exposed the underbelly of bystander impact. Click on one of her tweets from last night and see all those who have now turned on her for turning on Cosby. There will always be those who refuse to criticize him, no matter what evidence or testimony comes to light. His role as an American icon is entrenched in the hearts and minds of millions, and as we've seen in other cases, most are capable of wholly forgetting an ugly revelation in favor of the fantasy.

Public perception is all the more important, since the likelihood of actual prosecution against Cosby is still minimal. Since the statute of limitations has passed for most of his alleged crimes, there will likely never be a public court case. Guilty or not, there's a strong possibility that he will be able to go on with his life and career, as he has done for the last eight months — indeed, the last 40 years — regardless of the 30-plus women who've come forward to tell their story.

The only recourse we may have now is the court of public opinion, murky and chaotic though it may be. In a perfect world, these women would be given a chance for legal justice, but in that world they wouldn't have been been backed into silence by shame and the sway of a powerful man. In that world, it wouldn't take an assailant's admission for others to take the survivors seriously.

But in this world, we have to work with what we've got. Right now, that's a change of heart from one former supporter. Do we wish she'd spoken up sooner? That her statement was more clear and unambiguous? Yes, but we need not attack Jill Scott nor lionize her. We need to acknowledge her statement in the hopes that others may step forward and do the same.

Then, we need to listen.
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