However It Plays Out, the #JussieSmollettHoax Hurts the Victims of Real Hate Crimes

However It Plays Out, the #JussieSmollettHoax Hurts the Victims of Real Hate Crimes

Empire star Jussie Smollett has been in the news a lot recently: first, for an alleged hate crime committed against him, and lately, because there seems to be evidence that the hate crime was a hoax.  Smollett, an openly gay Black actor, claims that two white men brutally attacked him, using racist and homophobic slurs and declaring, “This is MAGA country!” Outpourings of support from celebrities and politicians were immediate.  Which has made the situation dicey for everybody, now that reports have surfaced alleging that the attack was a hoax.

The allegation is that two Nigerian men, brothers Ola and Abel Osundairo, were paid by Smollett to participate in the alleged hate crime.  Both men are acquaintances of Smollett, having been extras on Empire, and one even acted as a personal trainer to Smollett at one point. Smollett’s lawyers have of course denied the allegation that he paid acquaintances to participate in a fabricated hate crime, though it looks increasingly likely that this is exactly what happened.  But regardless, the evidence has not fully come to light, and this article does not take a position on whether the alleged hate crime is a hoax — our reason being that, no matter the result of the investigation, the damage has already been done.

For those not educated in the finer points of rhetoric (read: most of the American public), the existence of even one example of a fabricated hate crime can and will be used to discredit the claims of other, genuine victims.  Don’t believe me? Well, hold your nose, because we’re about to dive into the bog of eternal stench known as the Twitter hashtag “JussieSmollettHoax.”

The hoax has been used to put forward conspiracy theories targeting Black Democrats:

It has been used to cry reverse racism AND “heterophobia”:

It has been used for…whatever this mess is:

And, of course, it has been used to create calls for harsh judicial retribution:

Whence comes the traditional prison rape “joke,” now somehow doubly homophobic:

This is, as demonstrated above, the kind of story upon which the slapdash rhetoric of violent bigotry thrives.  I find myself forced to agree with this sports reporter:

Reason aside (and, in American public discourse, reason is often put aside), this story will indeed set civil rights progress back considerably. Or, at the very least, it will be used as a red herring to distract the credulous from evidence of real hate crimes.  If, as I mentioned in yesterday’s column, one entirely fabricated conspiracy theory can convince an entire community that a murder as high-profile as Matthew Shepard’s wasn’t really a hate crime, imagine the harm an actually fabricated hate crime can do.

Not that you have to imagine it.  We’re already seeing it.

A few parting thoughts.  If Smollett really did mastermind a hoax of this nature, the only natural conclusion is that he is a disturbed individual who, in the words of Jean Valjean, “needs a doctor, not a jail.”  The appropriate reaction to this story, no matter what the truth ends up being, is compassion, not outrage. The phrase “outrage culture” is applied too liberally and uncritically for it to be useful, but there is some truth to the concept.  I urge readers to consider that, no matter how righteous it feels, or how righteous it sometimes really is, outrage is not a replacement for thought or for interest in the public welfare. Neither, tempting as it may be, is mockery.

This event, and the rhetoric surrounding it, puts real people in danger.  Let’s treat the players in the drama, and the victims of its fallout, like the real people they are.

Evangeline Van Houten

Daughter of a high school English teacher and an English professor, Evangeline is a survivor of Academia and an aspiring elegant person. She lives in St. Louis with her family and a lot of books.