NECC Observer

The student news website of Northern Essex Community College, Haverhill and Lawrence, Mass.

Fake hate crimes deepen divide

The recent staged hate crime organized by Jussie Smollett is but the latest symptom of a disturbing trend in the current cultural and political environment. Disproportionately experiencing these fake hate crimes are college campuses around the country.  The BBC reports that a “Chicago judge has said that if true, the actions of Smollett are ‘utterly outrageous’ and ‘despicable’” Certainly, the public reaction to learning of Smollett’s hoax was at least as strong as their initial response to his claim. The idea that someone would manufacture a politically-charged incident to garner sympathy or even just attention might seem outlandish and prone enough to backfire to be a very rare occurrence. But, it’s not as rare as it should be.

In December of 2014, The New York Times reported that a young Muslim woman from New York, Yasmin Seweid, was charged with filing a false report. Miss Seweid had claimed a mob of white men had attacked her while yelling support for Donald Trump, and pulled off her hijab. She recanted the story and admitted she made it up due to “family problems.” At the University of Michigan in 2016, a student admitted to fabricating a story about her face being scratched as part of a hate crime, the New York Daily reports. Not a year later in 2017, The College Fix reported that a student had faked a threat and slur-filled letter she reported at St. Olaf College. To explain her actions, the young woman claimed it had been to “draw attention to concerns about the campus climate.”

It cannot be overstated how counterproductive it is to engineer racial and political incidents to try to address a college campus climate. One need only look to the response that Mr. Smollett’s staged attack garnered to see the wages of engineering hate.  The student from St. Olaf was not alone in her explanation though, it appears that “concerns about racism/islamophobia/etc” is a common justification for fabricating hate crimes, albeit retroactive justification since the guilty party will, of course, only admit to forgery if they are caught.

This is unacceptable behavior. Not only for the clear and obvious reason that faking a racially motivated crime is reprehensible on it’s own. Beyond that, such incidents expose a severe witch hunt mentality. In what reasonable mind is it concluded that “there hasn’t been a good hate crime to protest in awhile?” It is not enough, it seems, to address the legitimate and visceral cultural and political divides that already cuts down the center of our culture. Nor will it do to engage the right in measured and informed discussion. Instead, this recurring boogeyman caricature of the white man in a MAGA hat must be proliferated, for the sake of browbeating and moral grandstanding against those whose political positions the “victim” of a staged attack finds disagreeable.

I can think of few better ways to destroy any shred of goodwill that persist between the political camps, and to halt dialogue before it begins. What common ground is there to be had with a mindset that, lacking an enemy vicious enough to justify retaliation, will create it. It is not difficult for even the most sensible on the right to look at such incidents and come to the conclusion that the entrenched left in academia has already decided they are two-dimensional creatures of evil, and that discussion is pointless.

But I would argue that it is not only the right that loses in this scenario. Fake hate is a downward spiral for those who perpetrate it, and those who buy into it. Political disagreement does not have to be vitriolic, someone with a different position to one’s own is not necessarily cause to hate and fear them. But in this downward spiral, the feedback loop of propaganda staining reality, suddenly a populist, patriot, or even classical liberal becomes persona non grata.

Not to mention the extra scrutiny any report of a hate crime must now undergo, beyond what a sensible investigation would have done anyway. That well has been poisoned. What was once legitimate intention of stopping some of the worst crimes, was turned into a politicized mallet with which to batter the opposition until its original intent was lost entirely and its credibility was exhausted in the court of public opinion. Faking hate crimes hurts hate crime victims. Not people who commit hate crimes.  But these incidents show some are not satisfied with meeting their opponents on the grounds of policy or even worldview, it must be moral. Their political counterparts are not being reprehensible enough for them to hate, so they will make them so. Consequences be damned.

The second great contributor to this moral panic is without question the 24 hour news cycle. Infamously, the mainstream media dogpiled kids from the Covington Catholic School after short clips and photographs were taken that appeared, emphasis on appeared, to show the children taunting and jeering at Native American demonstrators. This was more a story written from a photo than a photo to accompany a story, and for days major outlets ran with it, dragging the names of high school children through the mud. Several walkbacks, half-retractions and a lot of lawsuits later, that battle continues.

The Covington incident pairs perfectly with Smollett’s fake crime in that major networks dropped the ball on these stories and dropped it hard. Rather than reserving judgement and looking for the various testimonies and other video that explained the situation at the Lincoln memorial, and exploring inconsistencies and problems in Smollett’s story further, partisan media took what was needed for the narrative and let it ride until those chickens came home to roost. 

Fake hate crimes are ultimately damaging to all involved, and does more to discredit actual victims than achieving any kind of discussion. As a political weapon, it is a disingenuous strategy of perpetuating stereotypes and character assassination by association.  The divides in this country, in the west in general, are very real and getting deeper every day. Vitriolic exchanges have become the order of the day. A worldwide clash of polar opposite philosophies, there are riots and elections and more frothing-mouthed rhetoric than anyone can stomach. But for better or worse we must deal with people as they are. Not as they ought to be to suit a narrative.

But I wonder if painting the right as jackbooted serial killers is a coping mechanism of sorts. To be able to say all one’s opposition are simply the epitome of evil makes the struggle simple and straightforward. But when they are people, real people with real families to feed and legitimate concerns about the state of our nation, that is scary. It is safe and easy to attack the faceless stereotype one assumes their opponent to be. Sitting down across the table from someone as different as night and day to you is terrifying because there’s a chance you might be wrong.