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:
— A Concerned Patriot (@retiredpizzaman) February 15, 2019
It has been used to cry reverse racism AND “heterophobia”:
— Larry Elder (@larryelder) February 17, 2019
It has been used for…whatever this mess is:
PROOF the #JussieSmollettHoax was used by unscrupulous individuals like @CoryBooker to pass a lynching law to benefit gays while ignoring police murdering Black people.
This was NOT accidental. It was very deliberate. https://t.co/kaaOk71juF
— Black Authority (@TheBlackChannel) February 17, 2019
And, of course, it has been used to create calls for harsh judicial retribution:
This is absolutely disgusting! He should be charged for the same hate crime that his fake MAGA perpetrators would’ve been!!! #LockUpJussieSmollett
— Time2WakeUp (@Sheeple15) February 17, 2019
Whence comes the traditional prison rape “joke,” now somehow doubly homophobic:
— LibtärdRepéllant 🇺🇸🦅 (@donkie1234) February 17, 2019
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:
If true, “wild” isn’t even the word. This #JussieSmollettHoax single-handedly sets civil rights progress back 30 years. The level of sociopath it takes to cook up this type of story – which could result in unimaginable damage if it was found to be false – is off the charts!
— #TheConsigliere (@FSUEsquire) February 17, 2019
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.