Carr on Culture: The power of the tweet

by Mary Kate Carr / Beacon Correspondent • February 18, 2016

Arguably the world’s most famous rapper, Kanye West, has marked the release of his new album, The Life of Pablo, in true Kanye fashion, with a slew of controversial tweets, name dropping everyone from Michael Jordan to Mark Zuckerberg.

 For me, the most egregious tweet came on Feb 9: “BILL COSBY INNOCENT.”  It didn’t come with the context of one of West’s usual Twitter rants. Arguably, he didn’t even offer an opinion on Cosby himself. But one message comes across in black and white: though over 50 women have accused Cosby of sexual assault, West is, for some reason, espousing his innocence.

 As a feminist, I find it extremely troubling for West to endorse Cosby on social media. West is someone with obvious and undeniable social clout. What he says, does, and tweets reaches millions of people every day, and gets repeated ad nauseam via other media outlets. Someone with such powerful influence can do incredible damage in perpetuating rape culture. As Neil deGrasse Tyson recently said: “[If] you have influence over others – as would successful rappers or even presidential candidates – then being wrong becomes being harmful to the health, the wealth and the security of our citizenry.”

 And, in case it isn’t clear, West is definitely wrong. In a 2005 deposition, Cosby admitted to using prescription Quaaludes for the express purpose of having sex with women. According to the New York Times, which first acquired the documents, “Mr. Cosby – when asked whether Ms. Serignese was in a position to consent to sexual intercourse after he gave her Quaaludes in 1976 said: ‘I don’t know.’”

 We don’t just have to take Cosby’s own word for it, though. We should take it from the more than 50 women who accused Cosby of sexual assault. Many of these women have been continually shamed and discredited for over 10 years, since the original 2005 lawsuit against him. The tide of public opinion only began to turn against him after a bit from comedian Hannibal Buress’s standup routine, in which he called Cosby a rapist, went viral in 2014. For far too long, our society sheltered and protected its beloved TV dad at the expense of the women he hurt.

 When it comes to sexual assault, our society in general tends to side with the accused, who are statistically more likely men, rather than the accusers. This bias stands despite a 2010 study done by Violence Against Women that found only two-10 percent of rape allegations to be false. That number has been up for debate for a long time – what’s “provably false” is hard to quantify. However, I think it’s safe to say this prevailing disbelief in female survivors of sexual assault comes from a societal impulse to blame the victim rather than pursue real justice. This is evident from the fact that despite Cosby’s current legal battles and the information that’s come to light about him, there are still those, like West, who would rather blindly defend Cosby’s innocence over the stories of survivors.

 To disclaim, I’m not trying to “demonize [a] real artist” or “compromise art”, as West himself has accused the public of doing. I respect him as an artist and enjoy a lot of his music. I also have respect for  Cosby’s work/performances and what he’s contributed to comedy. However, Cosby used his status and his position of power to take advantage of young women in a way I find unforgivable. While West’s tweet is nowhere near that level of insidiousness, it’s another example of the way celebrities can wield negative influence over our culture.

 Being a celebrity is powerful, and the way West used this capability recently is harmful and damaging for a demographic that is still plagued by rape culture. Feminists have fought tooth and nail against the victim-blaming tendencies prevalent in our society, and West’s very public stance threatens to undo what little progress we’ve made. Most importantly, he’s added to the trauma of countless sexual assault survivors who have struggled to tell their stories and be heard; in the face of West’s continued outrageousness, they are the ones we should remember.