“You Do Such A Disservice When You Lie About Things Like This.”
- Jussie Smollett, last week.
I must admit, I do feel a bit of sympathy for Jussie Smollett. His anger towards racial injustice, homophobia, hate crime in America and the Trump administration in general, was real. With that anger fueling schemes of revenge over rationality, Smollett likely felt he was justified in staging something that could not only hurt Trump, but give Smollett a louder voice in fighting for social justice causes, and bring more national attention to real hate crimes (which has indeed been on the rise even prior to Trump’s presidency). Yeah, ok, it looks like he was also banking that it would also increase his fame and salary, but that aside for the moment, I do believe he was a victim, but only to the allure of crafting a valuable piece of news for a cultural market that has reached a point of critical inflation for stories that play on our fears, hatred, divisiveness, and anger.
The Smollett saga is another example of left and right media’s exploitation of stories with racially charged narratives that play directly to their audiences, in other words, stories with “race appeal”. The media and audiences simply haven’t been bothering with evidence, analysis and deliberation in order to quickly get to the juicier part of opinion and confirming their political positions. When we create a culture dictated by confirmation bias, of rushing to judgement without facts, of essentializing the world to tweet-length pronouncements of good and bad, and perpetrator and victim, we create the opportunities that Smollett tried to capitalize on.
The rewards that Smollett envisioned from manufacturing harm apparently made him unable to understand that being a victim of a violent crime, of racist attacks and oppression is not a glamor industry, it’s not something you get to choose, to add to your identity collection. Yet one of the ugly 21st century by-products of the spectacularization of oppression through the filter of biased media outlets is what John McWhorter, in his article about Smollett in The Atlantic, calls “victimhood chic”, highlighted by the trend of “acting oppression instead of suffering it”. The pull to become an A-list victim for this B-list celebrity was just too strong, and under the cloak of a majority of media consumers erring on the side of believing without much scrutiny, Smollett felt he could get away with it, despite the sloppy craftsmanship of his hoax.
My sympathy for Smollett only goes so far until it reaches that point where he fails to see how succumbing to victimhood chic and the game of polarized media-cooked politics — especially in such an elaborate and public way — only hurts the very things that he stood for and fought against as an activist.
Last month, several news outlets were closely covering the murder of a 7-year-old African-American girl, Jazmine Barnes, who was shot and killed in a targeted attack in Texas. It was initially presumed to be a racially motivated shooting; a white male was reported driving away from the scene of the crime. A police sketch of a hooded white male in his forties was plastered all over the news. For a few days, it was a lead story on several mainstream news outlets. Yet, if you turned over to fox news, you didn’t see too much about that story; instead, you might find any one of the seemingly daily stories about an undocumented immigrant who mugged or killed someone, which functions less as “news”, and more as an attempt to provide evidence to bolster their president’s flimsy argument that the border is a national crisis.
As it turned out, the shooter in the Barnes case did not turn out to be a 40-year-old white male, but a 20-year-old black man. The white male was actually a witness mistakenly viewed as the suspect in a hate crime. You might have missed the conclusion of that tragic story since the it didn’t get as much airtime after it lost its race appeal.
As for the Fox news immigrant criminal campaign, there is no substantial analysis that supports any notion that immigrants are more likely to crimes than non-immigrants; it’s clearly a myth invented to rile up his base and metastasize fear at the expense of millions of immigrants legally living in the U.S.
These cases are indicative of the insidious racism and commodification of tension, fear and hatred in the political media and the cultural dialogue that it fosters. And it does nothing but manifest more tension, fear and hatred, and create more fake victims and more discredited real ones.
All too frequently, you’ll see a story become leading news or worth a social media frenzy ONLY when it becomes something that confirms what one side of a political view believes. Just as we saw with the Convington Catholic High School story, the blackface/blackface/sexual misconduct scandals in Virginia, and now with Jussie Smollett, it will be worth the editorial real estate for the left when it is benefits their base, and then will flip if the story takes a turn to the validate the right. This doesn’t mean that anyone should regret supporting Smollett at first, or feel guilty for allowing space and time for more details before formulating an opinion. But our modern political and cultural deep divide has made us even divided in approaching issues that people could otherwise agree to resolve together, like racism, sexism, violence, or even be able to find the real issues in the pile of biased, charged, and untrustworthy sound-bites, tweets and opinion editorials. It’s the media-fueled politicization of serious issues on both sides that makes them even harder to tackle these issues as a nation.