Does skepticism equal disbelief? Can one question elements of a particular story while also generally believing stories of its type? And does one story of a terrible crime turning out to be false immediately falsify all stories of all terrible crimes?
These are the hard questions that we should be asking ourselves as the saga of Jussie Smollett continues shift from a hate crime to a hoax.
When the news broke of Smollett alleging he’d been attacked by two men with rope, bleach, and shouting racial and homophobic slurs (along with a paean to Donald Trump) on a late night walk in downtown Chicago, the most prevalent reaction was horror. Everyone from celebrities to politicians weighed in on how awful it was that Smollett had endured this attack, and how little life has changed for black men in America since the days of Jim Crow. People expressed disbelief that news reports would report the story as an “alleged hate crime” or “suspected,” even though that’s standard for any crime where a conviction hasn’t been obtained.
But there was a second, much more muted reaction to the news: skepticism. Many of the elements of the story Smollett told simply didn’t make sense, and because the attack was blamed on Trump supporters, it fell to Trump supporters to point this out. And they were just as vocal in doing so as Smollett’s liberal supporters were in advocating for him. Much of it was in bad faith, yes. But they were skeptical. And they were right to be.
To even doubt the story was akin to attacking Smollett all over again, and in the process, doubting the stories of all assault survivors, the vast majority of whom are women and minorities. And to accept it without additional evidence was buying into a liberal victim complex that will do anything to denigrate Trump and push its own agenda of conservatives all being racist homophobes.
Neither of these things are correct, of course. But 2019 is not a year for nuance.
The battle raged on Twitter, Fox News, blogs, YouTube, and mainstream media. And this time, the conservatives were right. We all should have been skeptical of the stranger elements of Smollett’s story. And I can say that, because I was. The story never made sense to me, not because I don’t believe a gay black man could be the victim of a random hate crime at the hands of Trumpists. I absolutely believe that’s true.
It didn’t make sense to me because too many of the details had no logical explanation. A random attack at 2AM on a freezing night by two men who happened to be carrying bleach and rope and happened to find someone they recognized, attacking him and yelling out that he was in “MAGA country?” What were they doing out at that time of night in that weather? Hunting for random black men? And they just happened to find one in the short walk that Smollett took to and from the Subway he went to?
That’s a story that merits skepticism, not blind belief. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, or even that it couldn’t have happened. But it means we need to have it confirmed. We needed more evidence.
Liberals should have been skeptical of the story, and realized that skepticism of the more outlandish elements of one story does not equate to disbelief of all survivor stories. “Believe survivors” does not have to mean stop exercising critical thinking. One could point out the holes and logical leaps in Smollett’s tale, while acknowledging that the vast majority of hate crime and assault allegations are true, brought forward by people with no motive for making them up. This was an opportunity for powerful liberals to exercise caution and credulity, and it was utterly wasted.
At the same time, the conservative glee at supposedly proving their conspiracy theory of an allied anti-Trump media that routine pushes fake hate crimes is loathsome.
All up and down conservative Twitter, from Donald Trump Jr. (who has tweeted over three dozen references to Smollett) to random QAnon droogs, the reaction has been not just satisfaction of being right, but of finding an example of a supposed epidemic of fake hate crimes and of the left’s celebration of victimhood. Jussie Smollett was probably lying, so Christine Blasey Ford was lying about Brett Kavanaugh, Stormy Daniels is lying about Donald Trump, and on and on. There are now lists all over conservative media of celebrities who blamed Trump for the attack, along with a range of accusations that haven’t been proven by the Chicago Police.
The left was correct to be concerned, and wrong to not be skeptical. The right was correct to be skeptical, and wrong to lump it in with other stories.
And both sides are still doing it, digging into respective conspiracy theories that the Chicago Police are somehow involved in suppressing the real story, and that prominent Democrats were involved in concocting the story to help their electoral chances.
Hate crimes are way up since the election of Donald Trump. Fake hate crimes are still exceedingly rare, though they make up for it with outsized media coverage. Ultimately, we still don’t know which one Smollett’s story will end up being, though it’s looking more likely that he orchestrated the attack for reasons unknown. And that in doing so, he tied up the resources of the Chicago Police Department, put other citizens at risk, wasted taxpayer money, and cast unwarranted doubt on the many hate crimes that have taken place at the hands of Trump supporters.
And worst of all, we all lost an opportunity for critical thinking. We could have all united in horror at the very idea that this could have happened, while waiting for further details that proved whether it did or didn’t. Instead, we all marched in the direction our biases pointed us toward.
And we’ll do it again, and again, and again.
2/21 update: Jussie Smollett has been indicted by a grand jury on charges of filing a false police report, and it appears that every element of the attack, including the attack itself, was fake. Let the wave of “toldja” posts by right wing pundits begin.