Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Much damage done

When the news broke that actor Jussie Smollett was accused of staging a racist and homophobic attack on himself, resulting in charges being filed against him over the false police report about it, the reactions were mostly what one would expect. The worst reactions were the partisan attacks, because they contributed nothing to the discussion and just added more pain. A lot of people were hurt by his actions, but the damage probably won’t be long-term, nor what most pundits suppose.

The fact that Smollett brought supporters of the current occupant of the White House into his scheme resulted in the inevitable verbal attacks from them. Them doing that was understandable, since they’d been blamed for something that never happened. But I saw many instances of them taking that complaint too far, turning it into a general attack on “liberals” for every grievance, real or imagined, since their guy took power.

The worst thing that Smollett did was to create doubt in people’s minds about the legitimacy of every accusation of hate crimes, including those including, but not limited to, Rightwingers as the perpetrators. Most such accusations will be real, something we know because the percentage of accusations that are hoaxes is astonishingly small. For that reason, experts believe that this particular false case won’t cause most people to disbelieve future accusations. After all, they point out, who now remembers the Tawana Brawley false rape allegations, or the Ashley Todd mugging hoax?

That’s the optimistic view. However, there’s the risk that the cumulative effect of high-profile hoaxes can undermine ordinary people’s ability to believe new accusations, even ordinary ones. Basically, the more high-profile, sensationalistic hoaxes happen, the less people will believe “ordinary” hate crime accusations.

Similarly, high-profile hoaxes like this can, over time, make ordinary people less likely to believe accusations of racist or homophobic attacks. They can even make people already inclined toward prejudice to reflexively disbelieve real victims who are black, gay, etc. Would that be a large percentage? We don’t know. But even a small number still undermines progress made over the years, and that’s never good.

On the positive side, experts say “Don’t expect the Jussie Smollett case to affect rates of reporting”, and that’s probably true: The likelihood that people will report is already low, so this sort of thing is unlikely to have much effect.

The USA has a big problem even recording hate crimes, as ProPublica pointed out in “Why America Fails at Gathering Hate Crime Statistics”, published in December 2017. The fact that victims may not bother reporting crimes and, if they do, the crimes may not be recorded as such, is a bigger problem, one that high-profile hoaxes are unlikely to affect very much.

So, Smollett’s alleged hoax (“alleged” because, of course, he has not yet been convicted of anything) is a bad thing because of its potential for negatively affecting perceptions of real victims. But it’s also very sad because obviously something went wrong with Smollett for him to EVER think this was in any way a good idea. Allegedly. I hope he gets the help he’ll need, especially since this will almost certainly destroy his career.

In a few months, this won’t be as big a deal as it seems at the moment, though the fervent fans of the current occupant of the White House will keep dragging it up. But the reality remains that a lot of people were hurt by Jussie Smollett’s actions, and that includes Smollett himself. There’s plenty of damage done, and a lot of healing needed. I hope that healing gets to happen.

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