It’s relevant that Smollett’s alleged gambit for martyrdom fell apart quickly, too. This is what hoaxes tend to do: get exposed. Right-wing commentators have pointed to a string of false hate crimes reported in the Donald Trump era, including from a woman who said she was robbed of her hijab by a man in a MAGA hat and from a gay organist who planted “Heil Trump” graffiti at his own church. Each lie sews doubts about real crimes, drives greater division in the country, and wastes police resources. But the debunked tales that are circulating now are, as much as anything, reminders of how crying wolf isn’t easy to pull off when professional investigators get involved. The wannabe victims don’t appear better off for having tried it.
Meanwhile, actual victims still suffer, despite living in a supposed victimhood culture. The FBI says hate crimes have steadily risen in the past few years. Numbers crunched at Quartz suggest that 0.2 percent of hate-crime reports from 2016 to 2018 were false. Whatever the count, it is clear that hateful violence is a reality. The murder of nine black parishioners in Charleston by a man hoping to start a race war was not a hoax. Eleven people were killed in a Pittsburgh synagogue by a man shouting anti-Semitic slurs as he opened fire. There’s no doubt about how Heather Heyer died in Charlottesville. The revelation just this week that a Coast Guard lieutenant plotted mass assassinations as part of a plan to create a “white homeland” appears to be well corroborated.
Even if Smollett was taking advantage of such horrifying recent traumas, does that represent something new and pervasive? Many commentary pieces about Smollett invoke the decades-old example of Tawana Brawley, a black woman who in 1987 falsely accused a group of white men of raping her. At The Cut, an interview with Dr. Marc Feldman, an expert on “factitious victimization,” makes clear how inexplicable and pathological scams of suffering can be. He brought up the example of the many people who falsely claimed to be victims in the 9/11 attacks. “Some of them did it for money,” he said, “but there were also some people who seemed to do it just for the notoriety or the fame and the attention it would predictably attract.”
The more damaging cases of hoaxes throughout history are not those by marginalized people claiming trauma, as Smollett is alleged to have done. The most awful falsehoods have, rather, included rape accusations used to justify the lynching of black men. They’ve come in the form of fabricated evidence and coerced confessions to put innocent people in prisons.
Or they’re the ones that have channeled denialism: the contention that the Holocaust was made up by Jews, or that the KKK was black people in hoods, or, more recently, that the shooting at Sandy Hook was staged. These lies not only erode the credibility of people who’ve suffered; they also seek to make victims into villains so as to enable new horrors against them. If he lied, Smollett gave more fodder to such hate movements that try to replace realities with conspiracy theories. Painting his alleged crime as especially trendy, as if it reveals a wider scam, doesn’t help.