#TheEmptyChair: what Bill Cosby’s victims have taught us about rape culture

by slowsho


Originally written the week of July 26, when the article was published.

If there’s one thing you need to take away from the New York Mag cover story ‘Cosby: The Women’, it’s that this is what rape culture does to women, to generations of women.

This is what happens when we don’t believe women, when we give the benefit of the doubt to powerful men because their public image is one of benevolence, and family feel-goodness.

This is what happens when a woman doesn’t feel safe enough to talk to the law, because powerful people will get what they want.

And let’s be clear about this: for a long time, Cosby did. He has squashed cases, tried to silence women with money and has used all the means at his disposal to shame them into silence.

The background

Bill Cosby has been a Hollywood fixture forever, but he is most famous for playing the beloved patriarch Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show, a show that centred on ordinary family life in an upper middle class black family. It spoke of race, certainly, but subtly. Cosby became the jovial, loveable black father figure in American culture.

As a kid growing up in small-town, middle-class India, Cosby was likely one of the first few black men on my television screen – at least one of the first few adored and accoladed, instead of typecast in minor movie roles as ‘the angry black guy’ or ‘the sassy black woman’.

I grew up watching Kids Say the Darndest Things with my mother. Over the years, whenever we travelled to big cities, my mother and I would scour bookshops for – among other books – any of Cosby’s many thin volumes.

The Cosby Show, in fact, came last for us, when I had moved away from home, but not before teaching my mom how to find TV shows on the internet.

Just around the time my mother was gushing about the Huxtable family did the stories rape accusations start to register in my life, from the articles people shared, to discussions among comedians (most notably Hannibal Buress, who famously called Cosby a rapist during a show). I did what everyone did initially – like Time’s Justin Woreland has said, I pushed the accusations to the back of my mind.

I was a bad feminist; like most people, I initially couldn’t imagine that this seemingly adorable man could have done all that they were saying. It wasn’t even like he was a central cultural icon for me – I just found it so hard to fathom for the first few days.

Then I started to read. There was the Vanity Fair article by Beverly Johnson, who is also in the NY Mag piece. Then supermodel Janice Dickinson talked about the time Cosby drugged and raped her in 1982.

As one woman spoke, more came out with their stories. It was crystal clear: we had failed them by refusing to believe them individually.

The African-American burden

As one of the women, Jewel Allison says in the piece, “I had a few moments where I tried to come forward. But I was just too scared, and I also had the extra burden of not really wanting to take an African-American man down.”

For the longest time, Bill Cosby has been the cultural icon of an upwardly mobile black America. The Cosby Show was a promise of stability, family and the American dream – if only black people would get with the programme. Those aren’t my words; Cosby has famously chided poor black people in a speech now called the ‘Pound cake speech’.


Here we are then, with 35 women together in one story, and another 11 who didn’t want to be featured.

And who knows how many more?

There is no denying this: Bill Cosby drugged and raped these women. He stripped them of their consent, and then he stripped them of the ability to say something.

As the magazine noted a few days after the story’s release, the piece has sparked off a conversation on Twitter with the hashtag #TheEmptyChair, reference to that last empty chair at the bottom of the cover photo – a stand-in for the 11 women who chose not to be featured in the piece, but also for the many women who have been silenced over the years.

Rape and what it can mean

Technically, the piece revealed nothing now. All these women had made these accusations in the past, either as Jane Does or in their own names, either as part of a lawsuit only or in public/in the media.

That’s not what’s striking. It’s when you put all these narratives side by side, look at the chronology of assault, and the commonalities in all the stories – it’s chilling and heartbreaking.

It takes 35 women sitting together for us to believe each of their individual narratives.

A running thread through all of these narratives is that most of the time, these women either didn’t realise that what was being done to them constituted rape, or they were told that they would never be able to convince the police of the same.

That’s what the last few years has changed for these women – and hopefully for many others going forward. For those who are suspicious of the many, many women seemingly coming out of the woodwork to charge Cosby with assault, understand that social media and safe spaces for women on the Internet has made it possible for these voices to ring across the internet as loudly as Cosby’s more powerful voice usually does.

If Bill Cosby could squash the National Inquirer piece on him assaulting women by promising a scoop, it doesn’t matter anymore. There are many other media organisations willing to tell their story.

This is also possible because of how we look at assault today. As the women rightly point out, in the 60s and 70s, rape was strangers in the bush, not mentors, celebrities and certainly not intimate partners.

Thank god for feminism. If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times. We are here today, where people (men, woman and transpeople) can talk about assault and at least some of us – and increasingly more and more of us – will listen, will take them seriously. It’s scary to think that this was simply not a possibility fifty years ago, that everyone from your family to acquaintances to the police would tell you to just get over it, or that you had it wrong.

The cover story that NY Mag did this week speaks to the lasting effect of the years of sexual violence and decades of mental torture. It reminds us: a woman doesn’t have to be gangraped and left to die for her life and agency to be taken away forever.

Forget America, look at ourselves: we will weep for the murdered, the mauled and left to die. But what about the many, many women facing intimate partner violence?

If I sound hyperbolic, it’s because I am desperate in my need to never have this happen again. We cannot let a person do this to many women over so many decades, for it to take this long for the story to be told. Nevermind justice; the statute of limitations has passed for a lot of these women, and they will never get the ‘legal’ retribution that a lot of people seem to think suffice as justice.

Boycott Cosby, but that’s the least of it. Let’s instead believe them. Let’s not let this happen again.

The Usefulness of OpenStreetMap in Disaster Relief

by mrnovember

Immediately after the massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake that hit Nepal on Saturday, 25th April 2015, the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team [HOT] activated a huge user-contributed effort towards mapping various areas of the affected region. Along with organizations like Kathmandu Living Labs and Mapbox, HOT has enabled 3,461 users all over the world to contribute to OpenStreetMap [OSM] of Nepal till now. Around 57,000 edits have been made in the past four days by users, 2061 of whom are new users, registering just for this task [1]. These maps help relief and rescue organizations on the ground to reach affected areas and citizens.

Facilitating a link between the OpenStreetMap Community and the traditional crisis / disaster response teams, has been the main role of HOT. They have helped setup voluntary user contributions and mapping tasks during disasters like the Haiti earthquake, Ivory Coast Election Crisis, Ebola Epidemic in West Africa and Somalian Drought & Famine Crisis. Kathmandu Living Labs is a group of young technology enthusiasts who have remarkably brought together open source, open data and civic technologies to solve difficult issues. Along with Mapbox, an agency that specializes in maps, spatial data and Geographical Information Systems, they are actively working on HOT OSM tasks.

Since Sunday, 26th April 2015, users have been able to map in great detail about 10,000 sq. km of the affected area, “including coverage of road networks, hiking trails, built-up areas, building footprints, river crossings and temporary relief camps.” [2]

screenshot-api tiles mapbox com 2015-04-30 15-55-57

Earthquake Intensity Map by Mapbox. Red indicates stronger shocks.

How are maps useful for relief and rescue work?

Maps are valuable tools for humanitarian work. They allow for a strategic understanding of different parts of affected regions, such as road networks, residential areas, types of land use (industrial, agricultural) and so on. This helps relief and rescue agencies to identify all locations, how to reach them and what kind of a topographic landscape to plan for. So in a natural disaster like an earthquake, one of the many ways a detailed map can help is to identify locations where camp sites (Internally Displaced Persons – IDP Camps) can be setup. Mapping a network of roads, paths and tracks is another very useful task, since the data it generates is highly valuable for distributing aid and relief services.

Organizations like Red Cross and MSF (Doctors Without Borders) work closely with HOT for maps.

What is OpenStreetMap and how is it different from Google Maps?

OpenStreetMap, or OSM, is like a Wikipedia of maps – all data on these maps is user contributed. And unlike Google Maps, this data is freely available for download, distribution, adaption and use. This means that such map data can be used offline and for particular needs of different situations. You can create a map of power lines running through a country to see the reach of the electrical grid, if ever the need arises.

This makes OSM indispensable for humanitarian work. Map data of Nepal contributed by users is available here and here – these are updated every 30 minutes. This can be used to print physical maps, used on smart phone apps like OSM that work offline and even support voice navigation, and on GARMIN GPS devices. [2]

Latest satellite imagery, as recent as 27th April 2015, is available to OSM, making the map up to date and useful.


Everyone can contribute to these mapping efforts. Visit the HOT website to get involved. To volunteer for Nepal Relief Maps see this document put together by Datameet.


[1] OpenStreetMap response to the April 25 Earthquake in Nepal

[2] https://www.mapbox.com/blog/mapping-nepal/

[3] 2015 Nepal earthquake

Image by Mapbox

Another version published on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Contemporary Artists and Their Unquestionable Freedoms

by mrnovember

Dear Russell Peters,

You think that a roast is just being honest about someone, in front of that someone, and that the AIB knockout was great comedy. To an extent, I agree with the first part of this, sure, and I don’t care what you think of Aamir Khan.

But please, by all means, tell us how this means that a comedian (a real artist according to you) can ‘speak the truth’ about a person’s dark skin by joking about an entire race, about how they were – and are – treated like shit on the basis of their skin colour, about how an epidemic is taking their lives and goes unnoticeable until white people get affected by it. Does it also mean that a comedian can make fun of the sexuality of so many people who are shamed and humiliated by society, because one person on their stage happens to be okay with it? I could go on and on with references.

Continue reading

Hello world!

by mrnovember

Sixteenth of May, 2014 will most probably be considered a historic day for India. The politics of this country has taken a sharp turn today. For the better or worse, time will tell, but I do know that today is not the best day to begin writing this blog. The Hindu nationalist right wing has taken control of the parliament after a very eventful election campaigning season and an equally eventful voting period. It is historic because the Bharatiya Janta Party has won with a clear majority, leaving behind the phenomenon of coalition governments that the people of this country got used to in the last two decades. Except the Indian National Congress, another hugely problematic political organization lead by the Gandhi family, no other party has ever achieved such a feat. And this time the Congress has not even gathered 10 percent of the total seats of Lok Sabha.

The next five years are going to be significant. That may be an understatement actually.

While the corporate news channels are entertaining us as if a ‘block buster’ movie has just been released, it remains to be seen how they will observe, report and criticize this new government. It remains to be seen how the lives of people in this country will be affected. How many will benefit from this – or rather who will benefit, who will not and who will not even feature in the demographics.

Businesses will grow, the GDP will rise, the consumer economy will flourish, the stock exchange will gain points and economists will be happy. Except that these economists are not really economists. They are just capitalists, measuring a country’s development with standards other capitalists came up with. The trickle down effect is their answer to most criticisms.

And if the criticism gets sharper and louder, then watch out for the whip. It may seem as if I am describing United States of America, but hey, that is the foremost nation of the world. First of the first world. They have an elaborate whip with a reach that is so widespread and covert, that would probably make the likes of George Orwell squirm in their grave. It seems to me that that is where we are headed now. Now that progress is here, and inflation and corruption are going away for good, it would be a sin to criticize the new government and its governance.

And that is why today may not be the best day for this website to say hello world!

Or maybe it is.

I wasn’t supposed to write this today, I hadn’t planned it in any way, but I was compelled to when I read Narendra Modi’s most retweeted tweet: “India has won, bharat ki vijay, achhe din aane waale hain.” Good days are upon us he says. As if the election result alone will serve food on the plates of the poor, and provide social justice to millions suffering in the world’s largest democracy.