Outrage Culture and the Severity of Hate Crime Hoaxes

26th February 2019

Most everyone can agree on the gravity of hate crimes. To hear that a hate crime has taken place in your neighborhood elicits a palpably stronger emotional reaction than other forms of unlawful acts. Indeed, we created this special category of crime because of the general understanding that when a criminal act is committed based on the victim’s membership in a certain group, it is a measurably worse offense than if it were done in the absence of this motivation.

But what of when someone claims that they were the victim of a hate crime, but are found after the fact to have been lying? Given that we all agree on the uniquely contemptuous nature of hate crimes, it should follow that to falsely purport to have been subjected to one, or worse yet, to falsely accuse someone else of having carried one out, one might think, deserves a similarly harsh penalty. Many people, however, do not take this view.

The case of Jussie Smollett this past week illustrated the problem well. Smollett, a black, gay actor on the hit Fox series “Empire”, alleged that as he was walking down the street in Chicago in the early morning of January 29th, he was attacked by two men. He claimed that during the attack they berated him with racist and homophobic slurs (among them being “this is MAGA country N***er”), and finished the assault off by tying a noose around his neck and dousing him in “an unknown chemical substance.”

In the aftermath of the reporting of the alleged attack on Smollett, most people reacted with an understandable level of disgust. Many prominent figures rallied around him. In addition to the outpouring of support from those he knew from his work in Hollywood, a large share of the Democratic Party got involved as well. Congresswoman Maxine Waters blamed the attack on the hostile environment created by the Trump Administration, which she said has emboldened racists. Presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gilibrand all chimed in almost immediately. Even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi tweeted out her support of Smollett, calling the attack “an affront to our humanity.”

In the following days, Smollett’s story began to gradually fall apart. What began as curious inconsistencies culminated in a CNN article claiming that he had staged the whole ordeal. The piece cited two police sources as evidence. He has now turned himself into police on the charge of filing a false police report.

Many on the political right immediately jumped to condemn those who took to Smollett’s defense uncritically. I think this reaction is unfair. When someone claims to have been the victim of a hate crime, our first instinct should be compassion, not skepticism. That being said, we should always follow the facts, no matter how politically inconvenient they may be. And, unfortunately, it seems that the vast majority of those who reacted strongly to the initial story have been silent following the subsequent revelations.

Since the CNN story broke, none of the prominent figures who spoke out in Jussie’s defense have spoken out about the seriousness of his fake hate crime. Some, like Speaker Pelosi, deleted their initial supportive tweets of Smollett, and others have given flippant responses about the whole turn of events being disappointing, but none have taken any sort of initiative to draw on the broader point that needs to be made: that hate crime hoaxes are not just instances of misbehavior, but are in fact serious offenses that can have potentially devastating societal consequences if left unchecked.

If we fail to punish those who falsely report hate crimes in a way that is at least in the same vicinity as how we punish those who actually commit them, then we incentivize behaviors that will destabilize our country.

There has always been a strong motivation for people to claim victimhood when it can play in their favor. This is especially true at the moment: a development which can be attributed to the central role that social media play in public discourse. It is no secret that these platforms often foster an “outrage culture” by their very design. Indeed, a number of executives from social media companies have admitted that their algorithms can prioritize outrage content.

This phenomenon is compounded by the growing section of the contemporary Left that views victimhood as an indicator of moral and social status. In these circles, to be a member of an oppressed group allows you a certain level of standing – regardless of the legitimacy of your ideas or the content of your character. To have membership in one of these uniformly victimized groups, in addition to having directly experienced outright bigotry yourself, as Smollett claimed he had, elevates your position even further. Because of this dynamic, there is an ever-growing number of people eager to cast aside integrity and decency in pursuit of the social clout that can be gained from faking a hate crime against them.

Hate crimes are among the most heinous offenses a person can commit. Most people who claim to have been subjected to them are telling the truth, as was the case of Quilliam’s founder Maajid Nawaz being attacked by a racist outside a theater in Soho just several days ago. Hate crimes are also becoming more frequent. According to the FBI, hate crimes spiked 17% last year, marking the third straight year where they increased. It would not be unfair to speculate that President Trump’s failure to consistently denounce hate, specifically in its white supremacist form, has played a part in the phenomenon.

But if we aren’t willing to put the necessary measures in place to deter those who would fake one of these despicable acts to further their own goals, we cheapen the real malevolence that is intrinsic to real hate crimes.