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Villains and the People Who Love Them

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BILL-COSBYSomething utterly ridiculous happened last week.  Kanye West chimed in on the Bill Cosby serial-rape controversy, declaring on Twitter, “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!”  Kanye made this authoritative announcement completely out of the blue, with no explanation or reasoning to support why he believes the literally dozens of women who have come forward accusing Cosby of various forms of indecency are all part of a vast, girly-wing conspiracy that Hillary Clinton is probably ravenous to comment upon — after all, Cosby is one of Hillary’s biggest fans.

Now, I’m not saying that Bill Cosby is definitively guilty of everything he’s been accused of.  That’s for a jury, not me, to say.  But I can’t help but feel the evidence against him is pretty significant and convincing — at least convincing enough to prevent any ridiculous outbursts…even from someone famous for his ridiculous outbursts, like Kanye West.  (Anybody remember these?)

So why is it that, even in the face of what seems to be clear and convincing evidence of wrongdoing, some people want to offer Bill Cosby complete exoneration?

It’s simple, really:  They like him.  Everybody likes Bill Cosby, and consequently nobody wants to believe that he’s a serial rapist, despite all the testimonies pointing in that direction.  It’s just a fact of human nature that we all tend to try to be in moral harmony with the people we like, even if that means willfully excluding facts, logic, and evidence from consideration.  The more well-liked a person is, the more inclined we are to take that person’s side — right or wrong.

On top of that, talk show host and author Dennis Prager has written on several occasions about people having “moral bank accounts” — the more good you do, the bigger the balance in your moral bank account, and the more evil you do, the smaller your balance becomes.  It’s not a concept I entirely agree with (especially at the level of theology) for complex reasons I won’t go into here, but it’s a useful basis for explaining why people who have done terrible things somehow manage to retain their friends even after those terrible things have been exposed.

Put simply, people value villains for what they do for them.  Consider the villains you’ve encountered in your own life.  Most likely, those villains did not live isolated, lonely lives, scorned and hated by society, suffering under the weight of the consequences of their evil deeds.  On the contrary, they probably had their own circles of devoted friends who loved and supported them even when they exhibited patterns of shockingly callous and cruel behavior toward others.  You might have wondered, “How could this be?  Don’t his friends know what this villain has done/is doing to people?”  And the fact is, they probably do.  But they also know what the villain has done for them, and that is what ultimately makes the difference.

Think about it:  We all tend to keep closest to us the friends in our lives who do something for us.  Maybe you have a friend who you can talk to when you’re down.  Perhaps another one of your friends is the life of the party and always up for a good time.  Could be you have a reliable friend you can count on in emergencies.  Another friend might be an expert on car repairs or some other subject you occasionally need advice on.  These are the friends you tend to surround yourself with because, in their own particular ways, they have contributed something of value to your life.

angeldevilBut no friend is a perfect angel.  Everyone commits sins to some degree, and if those sins are egregious enough, you might find yourself wondering, “Is this friendship worth it?”  And that’s where the notion of the “moral bank account” comes in handy, because in light of this notion you may see how one might look at someone who’s done a terrible thing and say, “Oh, well.  That was a crummy thing they did, but their balance is still positive so far as I’m concerned.”

Except we’re not really talking about just moral balances here, of course — especially in the case of Bill Cosby.  People like Kanye West aren’t giving Bill Cosby credit for Cosby’s moral behavior outside of the present controversy.  Who knows if Kanye has even met Cosby?  But given that Kanye is only five years younger than I am, I think it’s safe to assume that, like myself, he grew up watching “The Cosby Show (ad)“.  Maybe he listened to some of Bill Cosby’s comedy albums (ad).  Whatever the case, somewhere in Kanye’s past, Bill Cosby did something for him, and now Kanye is trying to return the favor.

And this is generally how villains keep afloat despite their villainy:  They do something for their friends, whether it’s puffing up their friends’ egos, or making them laugh, exchanging sexual favors, etc.  And that puts the villain’s friends in a bind once the villainy is exposed.  For the friends to believe what’s being said about the villain, or even just to give the accusations the weight they deserve, they might have to consider cutting themselves off from whatever positive thing(s) the villain has been doing for them.  That’s not exactly “win-win” for those friends.  Therefore, they don’t have much self-interested incentive to give the accusations credit.  Most people, even those we consider “good” people, tend to think, “What’s in it for me?” in any given situation rather than, “What’s the most moral thing I can do here?” so long as they have a choice in the matter.  If all that believing in these accusations offers them is alienation from someone they perceive as a friend and/or someone of use, that’s not a deal they’re likely to take.  For them, believing is all negatives, no positives, so it’s far easier for them to disbelieve the accusations, no matter how irrational or unfair to the villain’s victims that might be.

And what happens if you are one of those victims, and you’re in the unfortunate position of trying to get the villain’s friends, who are also your friends, to understand the horrible things the villain is doing to you?  That’s an unenviable position in which many victims of abuse have sadly found themselves.  When villain and victim are part of the same community, who gets believed is often going to be a function of who is perceived as making the greater contribution to the community, and often that’s not going to be the complaining victim simply because those complaints are going to disturb the harmony of the community.  Often the community will close ranks against the victim, perceiving the victim to be the greater threat — i.e., “We were all getting along fine until you starting causing trouble with these accusations!”  And the more you complain, the more likeability points you lose, until your moral bank account, in their eyes, has been depleted — or even gone negative!

So how do you convince your community of friends that someone among you is actually a villain?  I hate to say it, but oftentimes the way to convince people of your moral rectitude is to get them to like you first, however you manage that.  The more valuable you can prove yourself to them, the more standing you’ll have when you do bring a complaint.  Yes, that may mean tabling the accusations for a while, until you’ve built up that credit.  But sometimes it’s better to keep silent for a while and build credibility, especially when the probability is high that speaking up immediately will only result in having your accusations dismissed just as immediately.

Alternatively, you can shift the focus away from the villain and onto the plight the villain is putting you through.  For example, I have a friend whose ex-husband is terribly inconsistent in keeping up with his child support payments, and she suspects that some of their mutual friends might be financially assisting her ex so that he can survive without getting a job which would (through garnished wages) funnel money to her and their child.  She’s repeatedly complained to their community of friends about his deadbeat behavior to no avail, but I believe that’s because in attacking the villain directly, she’s putting their mutual friends in exactly the kind of bind they want to avoid — do I shun this villain who does positive things for me, or do I disbelieve these accusations and shun the accuser?  That’s the kind of confrontational approach that makes the “What’s in it for me?” calculations take over in people’s minds — to the plaintiff’s loss, more often than not.

I’ve advised my friend that a more persuasive plea would be something like, “If you’re financially assisting my ex-husband so that he can avoid working, please stop.  I need him working so that the government can garnish his wages and send me money to feed his child.  The more you help him stay unemployed, the tighter things get for me and my children.”  That would, without levying any direct condemnations, get those mutual friends thinking about what they’re doing — because right now they’re probably thinking regarding their behavior toward the villain, “I’m helping a friend!  I’m doing good!” not realizing how that’s hurting their other friend, the victim.  Putting the problem in these terms gives the mutual friends a choice between the fake kind of “doing good” (e.g., financially supporting a deadbeat villain), and the real kind of “doing good” (e.g., making the deadbeat villain support himself — and, in turn, his victim).

One final thing to always keep in mind is that a circle of friends and a court of law are two radically different areas of life, and it’s important to recognize in which areas certain kinds of accusations belong.  We live in a society under the rule of law, where the power to punish is deliberately taken out of the hands of individuals and put instead in a legal system with checks and balances, so that feelings can (hopefully) be taken out of the matter and good or ill be determined solely on the basis of facts.  In a circle of friends, however, there are no such checks and balances, nor any obligation to come to a dispassionate decision blamebased strictly on facts, and especially no formal power to punish.  If you’re looking for retributive justice in the context of a circle of friends, you’re looking in the wrong place.  Disturb the circle, and you probably will find retribution…aimed at you.  So choose your venue of confrontation wisely, or else you might find yourself victimized a second time while the villain looks on and smiles.

Bill Cosby’s accusers knew this, which is why it’s likely that Mr. Cosby will very soon have his day in court.  And all his friends like Kayne won’t be able to help him there.

Image credits:

  1. “Front Page” at
  2. “Angel/Devil” at
  3. “Blame” at

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Mike, Who Speaketh His Mind

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