Dave Chappelle was one of the first credible names to call America out on its apparent celebrity obsession during his classic comedy set, “For What It’s Worth.” Ironically, one of the celebrities Chappelle cited to give credence to his views was none other than Bill Cosby. While Chappelle’s context for the use of Cosby as a case study for celebrity praise was far different than the firestorm that Cosby now finds himself under, the fact that Chappelle had the foresight to admonish us on the pitfalls of exalting famous people makes him even more of a visionary than I could have predicted.
That stand-up special debuted back in September 2004 – almost 11 years ago – and the tealeaves for what Chappelle was trying to get through to us can be read throughout today’s celebrity headlines and gossip wires. The moral outrage that Cosby now faces from the general public is eerily reminiscent of what Chappelle had to say over a decade ago; that looking so highly upon celebrities and public figures is an eventual setup for the failure of our personal moral compass and an outright misappropriation of the assigning of the “role model”.
The fact that people are “outraged”, “disappointed”, and/or “let down” by Cosby’s rape allegations is proof that we’ve taken our hero worship of celebrities and public figures way too far. Disgust and ridicule is one thing. Disappointment and betrayal constitutes something else entirely. I have always been perplexed by the moral outrage that people seem to genuinely feel whenever a celebrity reveals themselves to be human and capable of making mistakes and doing bad things. The outrage is exacerbated further when said celebrity is someone who was upheld to an above-board moral standard. Cosby is one such celebrity.
During the 80s, Cosby cultivated a father-like persona through his portrayal of an upper-class black doctor living in New York and raising a family, along with his lawyer wife, in a stable two-parent household fortified by strong family values and a stern adherence to decency. Basically, it was the very antithesis of the typical African-American experience in America both then and now. This archetype, or the romanticization of it by actual black people in America, was part of the fabric of the upbringing for many generations of black families, both whole and fractured.
I suspect that it’s because of this that so many African-Americans looked to the Cosby show, and by extension Cosby himself, as an example of what it can be to be black in America. Couple the bleak history of African-Americans as a disenfranchised people with the idealization that Cosby presented on TV, and you have the perfect recipe for hero worship. Just as Chappelle said all those years ago, people forget that Cosby is “a nigga from Philly, in the projects, and he might say some real shit from time to time.” Well, as it turns out, he might do some real shit from time to time as well, and as it looks right now, he was doing plenty of real shit during his heyday as a man with fame, money and access.
Apparently, he was drugging and having sex with so many impressionable women back in the day, he could have put stock into a company that produced date rap drugs under the table and cashed out before the Feds moved in to “Enron” the place. But what Cosby actually did isn’t the story for me. It’s the fact that our hero worship has allowed us to become personally invested in him.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m disgusted with what Cosby allegedly did. In and of itself, rape is utterly reprehensible. There’s just no place for it in any society and anyone found guilty of committing such a heinous act needs to be held at the mercy of the stiffest penalties the law can allow. However, I refuse to feel betrayed or let down by Cosby because doing so would expose me as one who has hitched my morality wagon to Cliff Huxtable, and that’s something I cannot allow. I may be in the minority on this, but I’ve never taken cues from TV characters on how to conduct my life because I’ve always accepted them as fictional representations of an ideal, not actual portrayals of real people.
If you believed that the man in question wasn’t a human man named Bill Cosby, but rather a morally upstanding citizen named Cliff Huxtable, then I’m afraid the joke is on you. I’ve always maintained the wherewithal to separate characters from reality for the sole purpose of not allowing myself to be set up for failure when things go awry and it’s revealed that the people playing these characters on a small or big screen are no better than you or me; that they are indeed capable of doing stupid, reckless, disgusting things.
The mistake that we routinely make, for whatever reason, is we equate a celebrity’s craft to their moral compass. The more favorably we perceive that person’s talent, the more likely we are to make connections between high-level performance and that person’s propensity for decent behavior. It’s like some sort of quasi-cathartic exercise drawn from our own desires to be rich and successful. We condition ourselves to believe that in order to make it to the top, we have to be morally upstanding, and since we are morally upstanding, we can make it to the top as well. The problem is that this line of thinking is faulty and serves as an illogical rationalization for the talent that we lack and they possess. Instead of focusing our energies on figuring out what we’re good at so that we can become successful, we opt for fixating on flawed celebrities who have already done just that, assigning our code of conduct unto them as a means of vicarious interpretation.
Hero worship is perhaps most evident in the sports arena, where the custom has become so pervasive, the athletes conduct themselves in a way that suggests that even they are aware of the advantages that their worshipped status affords them. Having lived in Tallahassee, FL – a hotbed for the worship of college athletes – for over ten years, I have seen the advent of hero worship play out before my very eyes.
For all of the bad press that the Florida State University football program has been at the center of lately, I can’t help but feel that the hero worship climate of the surrounding area is at the very least somewhat responsible for football players performing an about-face to decent behavior. I’ve seen, met, and been around a lot of those guys, and you can rest assured that at least on a superficial level, hitting women in bars and getting into trouble for various other transgressions comes from a subconscious sense of invincibility born from their treatment as men who don’t have to be held accountable for much because they can play the game of football at a high level.
Additionally, you’ve got grown men in their 40s, 50s, and beyond wearing the jersey of some 18-year-old college football player, further adding to the madness. This was weird to me even when I was young enough in my eyes to get away with wearing one myself. Now, I find it outright strange. In my opinion, if you’re over the age of 22 and your love for an athlete or team, professional or amateur, extends to you wearing a grown man’s name on your back, it speaks to a lack of fulfillment somewhere in your adult life. It’s the symbolism behind it.
Colin Cowherd of ESPN Radio is one of the few people with a viable platform who takes the time to call out America on the epidemic that hero worship presents us with. Albeit through the lens of sports, he often makes it a point to call out the collective masses on our tendency to assign righteousness to athletes and celebrities because in doing so, we alleviate ourselves of the burden of having to be morally upstanding without the guidance of a famous person who in all likelihood isn’t living by the creeds that they unwittingly stand for. So when the athlete gets caught on video punching a female in the face, we throw a morality-induced hissy-fit instead of entering our surface-level relationship with these people with realistic expectations and anticipation of an eventual moral misstep.
I’m not trying to absolve the athlete of any wrongdoing. I’m just saying that we don’t have a moral leg to stand on because they didn’t do anything that we aren’t capable of doing ourselves. Kick him off the team, ban him from the local bars, and do whatever needs to be done. But don’t ostracize him as a moral outcast simply because he plays football. Not unless you’re willing to accept the same fate when you are caught doing something similar.
In a previous post, I analyzed what I believe to be a moralist police state that has woven itself into American society and had an adverse effect on the livelihoods of celebrities and public figures such as Tiger Woods. Our hero worship culture works in conjunction with this.
Hero worship connotes the assignment of an above-board moral code to a celebrity or famous person, thereby signifying some level of trust. When a worshipped celebrity such as Cosby commits a morally reprehensible act, that trust is broken and our own personal sense of morality is placed in a state of flux, causing confusion, anger and frustration. We then feel compelled to police the offender in order to regain some semblance of our sense of morality and justify our outrage. What we have to learn to do is cease placing that trust in the hands of celebrities because they are not morally above reproach. No one is. Until we realize that, we will continue to feel betrayed by people like Cosby instead of learning to take cues on what is morally-just behavior from ourselves and ourselves alone. We have to rid ourselves of the need to engage in hero worship with celebrities.
I was pleasantly surprised to read that President Obama hasn’t fallen into the trap of hero worship with regards to Cosby, at least by all appearances. When asked by the press whether he would revoke the comedian’s Presidential Medal of Freedom due to the aforementioned allegations, the President responded that while rape is a depraved and unjustifiable act, there is no precedent for revoking the distinguishment. This is because despite what Cosby is being accused of, his contributions as a trailblazer both in mainstream and black entertainment as well as his charge to make a way for more African-Americans to pursue higher education warrant the bestowment of such an honor.
Our hero worship blinds us to this fact because we’ve come to harbor the notion that a dedicated and substantial body of work is to be cast aside in lieu of errors in behavioral judgement. It behooves us to understand that artistic contributions to society and personal conduct are mutually exclusive. If we can learn how to make the distinction between the two, we’ll be better equipped to not be beholden to hero worship and more able to establish our own individual moral framework. WE can become the arbiters of our own hero worship, which is the best possible scenario.
The way the narrative on Bill Cosby ultimately shapes out will be completely up to how we frame it. Either we can see to it that he wallows in public shame and goes away quietly, punished by the public and judicial courts (if it comes to that), or we can allow it to rip our personal code of conduct to shreds and expose it for not being that strident of a code to begin with. I for one am opting for the former path. Hopefully we collectively do the same.
Where do you stand when it comes to hero worship? Do we assign too much moral responsibility to celebrities and disregard that they are still human, or does their position necessitate the need for them to be held to such a standard? Sound off in the comments section and take the Conscious Approach!
Javis Ogden is a Miami native turned current Tallahassee transplant and the founder and chief contributor to Conscious Approach. He has worked as a creative content specialist since completing his graduate degree in Integrated Marketing at Florida State University, and he aspires to be a cultural critic, screenplay writer, ½ of the ESPN First Take debate panel, author, or whatever his short attention span will allow him to be inspired by at any given moment. When he isn’t pursuing freedom, you may be able to find him on an indoor basketball court. He is always in search of his muse. You can help him find it by following him on Twitter @JavisOgden, Instagram @JVWins, Facebook /JavisOgden, and snapchat JavisOgden.