The other night my friend René asked about my opinion of the whole Jussie Smollett thing – his claims of having been assaulted by a racist and homophobic man and of the shade that had been cast on the claims by then. At the time, my response was that I didn’t know quite what to think of the whole thing. There were certainly facts coming out that cast doubt on his account of what happened, but nothing as decisive as there seems to be now. But I have been thinking of this whole story since she asked, and I do have some thoughts on it as a specific incident and as a situation that casts a larger net.
First of all, I feel very sorry for Mr. Smollett. I don’t know what has been going on inside this man that would cause him to make up a crime and go to the lengths he did. He has to be starved for attention and validation. There has to be a part of him that feels “less-than” that would make him work so hard to garner attention. I don’t know if he’s suffered racist and homophobic insults in private so often that it became too much. I don’t know if there was something going on in his private life or his career that pushed him to a seemingly irrational act. I don’t know anything about his life or history before this moment in time. So I don’t know what caused him to create such an elaborate and yet easily debunked scheme. But I know that it isn’t the action of someone with an unbroken heart and a strong sense of self-confidence. So I have sympathy and compassion for a man who is obviously hurt and desperate.
This doesn’t mean that I excuse the act.
On the contrary, I am angry with him too. The act of making up this claim has done a great deal of harm. It cost the city of Chicago a great deal of manpower and funding to chase down imaginary criminals. But it came at an even greater cost to real victims of heinous attacks. As a society, we already struggle with people discounting or repudiating the claims of racial bias, hurled insults, dehumanizing acts, and violence. We already have people who deny and disregard the vile words, actions, harassment and violence that the LGBTQ community lives with on a daily basis. We already brush off women’s reports of sexual harassment, assault, and rape. We have leaders and a populace who scorn and ostracize women who have reported sexual attacks and the very need for the existence of the #MeToo movement while excusing the actions of the attacker. Any time that a false claim or charge is made and discovered for what it is, the real victims have a harder time coming forward, having people listen, being believed, and getting justice.
Earlier this week I heard a woman on television say something interesting that really made me think. (I wish I knew her name so that I could give credit to her, but all I know is that she was in the middle of speaking with Carla Hall when I turned on the tv). She said that, even if Jussie Smollette’s story is proven to be a lie, she is glad that she supported him at the time he made the accusations and would still do it any time someone comes forward. She said that we need to listen to them. We owe it to people to give them the benefit of any doubt and stand with them when they step into the harsh glare of public scrutiny with something traumatic, when they risk what will come from their disclosures.
Too many victims are re-victimized when they try to tell their story, when they seek legal action to stop their attackers, and when they reveal their pain and vulnerability. We’ve all seen it far too many times in the past. We’ve seen the women shamed for just being somewhere, for what they were wearing, or for having a drink. We’ve seen countless people told they are making something out of nothing. We’ve seen the pain caused by trusted people who have betrayed trust by being dismissive and covering up the acts of others. And yes, we’ve seen the fake claims too. But that brings me back to my first point. Sometimes we need to be there and stand with those people too, to find out what kind of pain caused them to do what they did.
The final thing that I think is horrific in this whole incident is something that has been true far, far too often in recent years. It is something that I’ve seen called “selectively informed moral outrage.” People get all riled up over a slight, an attack, the beliefs or intents of the “others” and become morally outraged. They go on their social media of preference – or a bunch of social media outlets – and spew vitriol, accusations, and loathsome conclusions. “Those people” should be run out of the country, thrown in jail, tortured, not allowed to live! And then after a few days the truth or (insert Paul Harvey’s voice here) “the rest of the story” comes out. By then people have moved on to being outraged and offended by something else. They don’t want to go back on those social media pages and say “oops” or take down their comments made in error. And some will be so dug in with their anger that they refuse to see the truth.
We need to take the time to think, reason, research, and make informed decisions. We need to realize that not everything is a world crisis, the end of humanity as we know it, or proof positive that we’re all going to hell in a hand basket! We especially need to know not to make rash, sweeping generalizations about one incident or one comment making it a global experience.
When I hear of a mass shooting whether it is at a school, black church, or a gay bar, I am livid. I’m filled with rage. When I hear of anyone being assaulted verbally or physically for their race, ethnicity, gender, beliefs, or handicaps, I have sympathy, hopefully empathy, and compassion for the victim, but I am always angered by the event too. I am usually ready to go on the attack against the perpetrator. What we all need to be careful of is making the perpetrator more than the person committing the act. If I say ALL men/women, All blacks/whites/POC, ALL Jews/Muslims/Christians, ALL Republicans/Democrats, ALL immigrants… I am being unreasonable and causing more harm than one perpetrator did against one victim. I’m condemning an entire people who are not involved let alone guilty. We need to remember the words of Maya Angelou that we are “more alike than we are unalike.” We need to place the blame on the real source of evil, on the ones actually committing the acts, not the populace they resemble.
So, René, as always, I have a very long and involved answer to a short question. That’s what happens when I try to get as much information as I can and when I stop to really think about something rather than giving my knee-jerk reaction. My first gut response was outrage and sympathy. As I garnered some facts, I had questions. In my mind I couldn’t grasp how he walked around with a noose around his neck long enough for it to be seen by as many people as relayed seeing it. I believe that in my repulsion, fear, and panic, the first thing I would have wanted to do was take that thing off and hurl it as far away from me as possible. But I didn’t discredit his story based on that because people react differently in stressful situations. Most importantly I didn’t immediately blame everyone who is not black and gay for the attack nor did I turn around later and skewer a man and try to ruin his life for what he did. We still don’t know all that we need to know to pass judgement. Passing judgement is for someone in a higher position than my pay-grade.