Our society is drifting back towards purity. This time it is not sexual or religious purity we seek, but ideological. Our culture hungers for a monolith of belief. A Liberal is but One Thing, a Conservative is but Another Thing. Any deviation from expectation, or in the vernacular of the age, any deviation from the “brand,” and the person is no longer genuine. Fake, phony, evil, a servant of the enemy.
The problem is human beings are not monoliths. We are pieces of good and bad smashed together, coexisting in one body trying to navigate our world. There is no such thing as a perfect person, and there isn’t an individual out there without absolutely any redeeming qualities.
I know some people will push back against that, but think about it. By reducing evil to a singularity, by making monsters out of men, we rob ourselves of our better judgement. It becomes harder to see the atrocities coming if we only expect evil in one specific form. We must remember that people have great capacity to do both good and evil — sometimes at the same time.
The best thing I can do is illustrate the most current example of this duality. Bill Cosby was an absolute titan for the Black community from the mid-1960s until his infamous “pound cake” speech in 2004. It wasn’t just about the role model figure he cut on television, or the generation of comedians he influenced. His investments in philanthropy and education were rivaled by very few. More than $800,000 in scholarship grants were given through the William and Camille Cosby Foundation from July 2000 to June 2013. In 1988, he gave $20 million to Spelman College, a historically black college for women.
None of that changes the fact that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist who spent the last decade of his career dealing in respectability politics and chipping away at his own legacy. That is all on him. There was no wide-ranging conspiracy to bring him down. After his conviction, his legal team thundered about racism in the American judicial system and the long history of white women accusing black men of sexual assault in the U.S. Both of these points are valid on their own, but irrelevant when it comes to Cosby. Is there racism in the American justice system? Of course there is. Is there a long and ugly history of white women falsely accusing black men of sexual assault and rape in this country? Absolutely. That does not change the fact that Bill Cosby is a serial rapist. It doesn’t change the fact that because of his choices and the enabling forces around him, he was able to destroy women’s lives for nearly five decades.
There doesn’t have to be a vast and involved conspiracy theory to understand that a man who did many good things could simultaneously do unspeakably bad things. Humans are complex, and the nature of our existence is constantly wrapped in our own duality.
An often overlooked aspect of this story is the residual impact Cosby’s actions had on people associated with him. Yes, he ruined dozens of lives. Yes, he destroyed his own legacy. But he also damaged the credibility of the movements he associated himself with. The MLB put together a “Civil Rights Game” in 2009 where Cosby, Hank Aaron, and Muhammad Ali took the field together as symbols of success in the face of struggle — a group of First Men, who pioneered in their fields and left a legacy that generations would try to emulate for years to come. Knowing what we know now about Cosby, the event feels tainted, wrong. When the champions of our movements succumb to their own failures, flaws and demons, it gives fuel to the enemies of progress.
Cosby is not the only example. If there had been no Lewinsky scandal in 1998, how many more shots would we have gotten at Osama Bin Laden? The targeted strike missed, President Bill Clinton was empty-handed, and Republicans on the Hill claimed he was trying to “wag the dog” to divert attention from his own embarrassing scandal by pursuing someone of little value to the U.S. Imagine if Clinton didn’t have to worry about political backlash and was able to openly chase after Bin Laden for another two years. The future may have looked much different.
The lesson we must learn is this: Expecting everyone you see to be all of one thing or all of the other is a ridiculous standard to set. Yet doing the right thing goes a long way in life. Not just because it’s the right thing for you, but also because of what you represent.
In these times of social and political upheaval, when everyone has a cause, you have to fly right. It’s essential to the credibility of your cause and your movements. You not only damage yourself and the people you hurt immediately, but in the long run, you drag down the very things you stand for.
Be good. Do good. For others and yourself.
There’s no such thing as a pure, perfect person. But it doesn’t take much for us to be strong, to be courageous, to be kind.
Willis Gordon is an entertainer, author, essayist, activist, and veteran of the War on Terror.