Old tweets sending well-wishes to Jussie Smollett aren't some sort of "gotcha."
It's perfectly fine to offer words of encouragement upon learning that someone has been attacked and hospitalized. What's important is to not rush to blame.
Something that’s been bugging me the past week or so: Jussie Smollett
If you’re unfamiliar with his story, Jussie Smollett is a singer and actor best known for his role on Fox’s Empire, starring alongside Terrence Howard and Taraji P. Henson. Like his character on the show, Smollett is Black and gay, two factors that would play a role in the event that would eventually overshadow his career accomplishments.
On the morning of January 29, 2019, TMZ reported that Smollett “was brutally attacked by 2 men who beat him up, put his head in a noose and screamed, ‘This is MAGA country.’” Smollett, who was in Chicago, took himself to Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
And while details were still murky and unconfirmed (especially the part about the attackers allegedly yelling “This is MAGA country”), people did what they often do when tragedy befalls a celebrity: they offered condolences and words of support.
As time went on, however, aspects of Smollett’s story began falling apart in big ways. Inconsistencies added up and it quickly began to appear that Smollett may have staged his own attack and hired brothers Abimbola and Olabinjo Osundairo to carry it out. Aspects of his account, which included claims that his assailants tied a rope around his neck and splashed him with an unknown liquid substance, were horrific — if true, which it seems was not the case. (ABC 7 Chicago’s Rob Elgas chronicled the timeline on Twitter at the time, which you can read through by clicking through to this tweet thread.)
Last week, Smollett was convicted of five felony counts of disorderly conduct for lying to police about the details of the attack. You can read more about the specifics of the case at pretty much any news site or by Googling his name. I’m not particularly interested in the case itself, but by something else that’s been on my mind.
There’s a lot to criticize about the way some people and organizations responded to Smollett’s attack. Interestingly, that’s not at all what the right-wing “gotcha” squad has targeted.
Over the weekend, I read through all of the tweets from verified accounts mentioning Smollett on January 29, 2019 (type “filter:verified since:2019-01-28 until:2019-01-30 smollett” into Twitter’s search bar without the quotes and you can do the same search on your own). There were some really bad ones. Many people and a handful of news organizations amplified the more salacious details, with some people outright blaming then-President Donald Trump and then-Vice President Mike Pence for the attack. Criticizing those would be fair game, especially in light of everything we’ve learned since that day.
But rather than criticize those posts, right-wing accounts started resurfacing tweets that were actually pretty decent from the day. One account, “Libs of Tik Tok” (which exists to find and surface mockable content posted by “libs” on social media), posted a collage of Democratic politicians offering words of sympathy and encouragement from Smollett on the morning of the attack.
“Incredible stuff,” reads the caption.
But was it “incredible stuff?” If you look through the list of tweets, which included ones from then-Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Bernie Sanders, then-candidate Joe Biden, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, Sen. Cory Booker, MSNBC host Joy Reid, Rep. Rashida Tlaib, and Rep. Eric Swalwell, they were all actually… fine, especially at the time they were posted.
None of those tweets repeated the “MAGA country” line. None of those tweets blamed Trump or Pence. Booker and Harris referred to the attack as an “attempted modern-day lynching” (which, given that at the time they posted their tweets, Chicago Police had confirmed that there was a rope around Smollett’s neck). Lightfoot’s tweet was pretty much what you’d hope a city’s mayor would say following a report of a suspected hate crime against a public figure. Only Tlaib and Swalwell blamed “lies spewing from the right-wing” and “careless hate-filled rhetoric,” respectively. Those you can certainly criticize, sure.
But I really do not understand what the problem with many of these tweets is… supposed to be.
Harris tweeted, “Jussie Smollett is one of the kindest, most gentle human beings I know. I’m praying for his quick recovery. This was an attempted modern-day lynching. No one should have to fear for their life because of their sexuality or color of their skin. We must confront this hate.” Okay. And at the time, that really seemed like a pretty measured response, no?
And Biden tweeted, “What happened today to Jussie Smollett must never be tolerated in this country. We must stand up and demand that we no longer give this hate safe harbor; that homophobia and racism have no place on our streets or in our hearts. We are with you, Jussie.” Again, this is pretty measured and didn’t unnecessarily veer into blaming Trump or Pence or referencing the then-unconfirmed “MAGA country” line.
Even Trump weighed in, calling the attack “horrible.” “I’ve seen it. Last night. It’s horrible. Doesn’t get worse, as far as I’m concerned.”
As did the Log Cabin Republicans, who tweeted, “The entire Log Cabin Republicans nation is horrified to hear of the attack on Jussie Smollett. Violence does not make this country great. In a nation where freedom of expression reigns, the American people cannot tolerate hate crimes. We wish Jussie a swift recovery.”
And even actress and Trump superfan Kristy Swanson weighed in with a tweet condemning the attack and saying that she was praying for his recovery.
What is the “gotcha” here? What was supposedly wrong with those tweets and statements?
Looking at the quote-tweets on the Libs of Tik Tok post, there seem to be a lot of influential people insistent on these being… bad. For instance:
“The primary blame for perpetrating the Jussie Smollett hoax obviously rests with Smollett , but it's still worth asking (a) what cultural factors incentivize this behavior and (b) why so many leading Dems instantly and unquestioningly seized on this before anything was known,” tweeted Glenn Greenwald on December 9. (“What cultural factors incentivize this behavior?” “This behavior” being… offering sympathy? What kind of sociopath thinks that’s bad?)
“This is quite something,” added Bari Weiss.
“Look at this parade of frauds,” wrote Monica Crowley.
“Shame,” said New York Post and Fox News employee Miranda Devine.
“America is waiting on these apologies. Start the clock!” a man named Tony Katz added.
“Hahahaha! Wow,” wrote Ned Ryun.
After seeing Weiss’ tweet, I felt compelled to reply, writing, “It’s actually really normal to express sympathy when there’s a report that someone was attacked (and that report was even backed up by the police at the time). This isn’t the own you think it is. If the examples were people blaming Trump or whatever (as I’m sure there were examples doing that), that’s a different story. But it’s not actually notable that people expressed sympathy and initially took him at his word.”
Because at the time of all of this, the fact that Smollett had been attacked was pretty much a given (no one, on the morning of January 29, could have possibly known that he hired his attackers). He was in the hospital, there were reports of broken ribs, and more. What… exactly… is the right response here, if not offering words of support and hope for a full recovery? That’s different than trying to pin the blame, which most of those tweets didn’t do.
Harris actually followed up on her tweet a month later once Smollett had been arrested for filing a false police report, writing, “Like most of you, I’ve seen the reports about Jussie Smollett, and I’m sad, frustrated, and disappointed. When anyone makes false claims to police, it not only diverts resources away from serious investigations, but it makes it more difficult for other victims of crime to come forward.”
Do we really want to live in a world without sympathy? Without empathy? Because that’s really the only alternative.
Because if we’re at a point where a man can say he was beaten, the police can confirm that and add that he had a noose tied around his neck, and that he was in the hospital… but shouldn’t offer words of sympathy (without placing blame or assuming guilt), then what bar do we need to meet before sending “thoughts and prayers?”
We all know that people using some generic words of encouragement as some sort of “gotcha” don’t actually care about “not jumping to conclusions” (which, most of those tweets didn’t jump to any conclusions). Because if that was the case, they’d care about things like when NYC police lied about being “poisoned” by milkshakes at a Shake Shack, for instance.
There’s no consistency here. None. These are the same people who fell for the absurd story of Ashley Todd, who in 2008 scratched a “B” into her face (it was backward because she did it in a mirror) and claimed that “a 6’4” black man” did it while yelling about supporting Obama. At the time, conservative media ran with that story without asking questions, and she even got personal phone calls from John McCain and Sarah Palin.
As in the Smollett case, offering well wishes to Todd when her story broke, would be fine. It’s normal to offer sympathy. It’s healthy, even.
Offer sympathy, but reserve judgment.