Did Jussie Smollett’s story always feel little off to you?
In the middle of the night, two white males in ski masks happen to be prowling the streets of Chicago. Armed with a bottle of bleach and a noose, in sub-zero temperatures, these men yell racist and homophobic insults at Smollett. Oh yes, they also happen to be Trump supporters, naturally. They instantly recognize Smollett, a reasonably well-known actor but, prior to the attack, hardly a household name. What’s more, these attackers, while clearly homophobic and racist, also happen to be intimately familiar with Empire, a glitzy black soap opera. This is what happens when actors are allowed to write the script.
If you were suspicious of the story from the start, hats off to you. I, on the other hand, bought Smollett’s story hook, line and sinker. After all, the United States is a country synonymous with acts of violence against black people. Smollett, I thought, just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time; the thirty-six-year-old was clearly a victim of a hate crime. How wrong I was.
On 21 January, the disgraced actor was arrested on charges of filing a false police report. The charge, which could result in up to three years in prison, is a serious one. Although a fine actor, Smollett cannot act his way out of a mess that he created and will spend the rest of his life trying to clean up. Like something out of Empire, in less than a month, Smollett went from protagonist to antagonist. Now we find ourselves asking one question: why would someone like Smollett, rich and famous, sacrifice it all for a fictitious tale? Why would anyone openly and persuasively proclaim himself to be a victim?
But, given the secondary rewards, interest, protection and well wishes received, why wouldn’t he assume the role of victim? In a sea of supposed victims, when the opportunity to become Victim Number 1 presents itself, why are we surprised when a person, even one who happens to be successful already, grabs it with both hands? Naturally, when society attaches benefits to victimhood, we start to see more and more victims. Smollett, I assume, wanted to elevate his status from an actor to the actor. Why be a celebrity when you can be a martyr?
Smollett, who once compared himself to Tupac Shakur, clearly craved a level of stardom that Empire couldn’t offer. In an age of racial and sexual debate, what could make him look more interesting and relevant than being attacked on the basis of his color and sexual orientation? The role of victim as a form of status is an interesting and worrying concept. As a man of color, Smollett saw his chance to elevate his status from somebody to something, from actor to activist.
Smollett didn’t just want to participate in the Oppression Olympics, he wanted to win it. Unlike the actual Olympics, where the goal is to enter a contest, head held high, chest puffed out, in the hope of claiming gold, the Oppression Olympics is all about portraying an image of frailty and vulnerability, yet somehow emerging victorious, claiming gold in the moral high jump.
When the original Olympics started, competitors shared the same religious beliefs and spoke the same language. In this respect, the Oppression Olympics is somewhat similar: the athletes that come to compete share the same religious belief (victimhood) and speak the same language (victim). In America, the ground has never been more fertile for the proliferation of victim mentalities. This is a time when people are quicker to moralize than actually act morally, quicker to act out oppression than actually suffer it, and, perhaps more worryingly, lower themselves to the role of victim instead of elevating themselves to the role of hero. But this encapsulates what it means to be alive in 2019: Smollett knew that playing the victim offered a kind of privilege that money could never afford him.
The Making of a Victim
In 2015, sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning published a fascinating paper. The authors noticed that perceived victims tend to respond in a very distinctive manner, one largely facilitated by social media. Unlike the offended party in an honor culture, who will often challenge the offender to, say, a physical fight (You insulted my girlfriend, let’s step outside)—an individual with a victimhood mentality will often respond by publicly airing her ordeal on social media. By publicly presenting herself as the victim of an unprovoked attack, an individual can elicit sympathy from the masses and antipathy towards the accused.
By updating your status to aggrieved, it’s possible to get the backing of hundreds of people, or, in the case of Smollett, hundreds of thousands. Unlike honor culture, victimhood culture relies heavily on third-party involvement. It really doesn’t matter whether or not the insults are imagined or real, intentional or unintentional, the victim reacts by seeking the attention of authorities—sometimes actual authorities, but usually moral authorities. Once the aggrieved has chosen a specific type of third-party involvement, they set about emphasizing their oppression and social subjugation.
Perhaps the rise in victimhood mentality has something to do with tribalism. For all its advancements as a nation, the US certainly lacks the familiarity and cultural homogeneity that once characterized its landscape. Is this a bad thing? No, absolutely not. However, a lack of familiarity often breeds contempt. From an evolutionary perspective, we are hardwired to be suspicious of outsiders. We are fiercely loyal to our tribes; we are fiercely loyal to our ideologies. Outsiders who offend—like homophobic racists in MAGA hats—enrage us, and this sense of rage prompts us to action. If the victim is too weak to respond to his oppressor directly, he can post his story on social media, sit back and watch the domino effect take place. As a black homosexual, Smollett concocted a story in which he was powerless to resist the brutality of homophobic racists. In the fabricated narrative, Smollett was attacked by men who represent everything that is wrong with America. The story enraged the masses—and anger is particularly contagious on social media.
In 2013, after trawling through 70 million social media posts, researchers at Beihang University in Beijing found that anger exerts a far greater influence than other emotions like sadness and joy. When it comes to aggressive outbursts, social media has shortened our fuses; add a smartphone, which allows us to respond anytime, anywhere, into the mix and you have a recipe for volcanic eruptions. Victimhood, according to Campbell and Manning, is a “moral dependence.” It appears to have really come to the attention of the public in 2016, the year President Donald Trump was elected, when liberals started to voice hyperbolic notions about America’s inevitable slide towards the sunken place. Trump, the oppressor, was Satan’s spawn, sent to destroy all notions of moral decency.
Victimhood culture persists because, as Campbell and Manning point out, the US provides “social conditions conducive to it.” Everywhere from college campuses administrations to biased news networks, they argue, victimhood culture prevails “because those conditions have prevailed.” The factors involved include the following:
- Third-party involvement is not just encouraged, but expected.
- The availability and willingness of individuals to get involved—whether they are Hollywood actors or college administrators—is a strong incentive to wave the victim card.
- Victimhood culture is given prime importance in atomized environments, such as the echo chambers of social media, where likeminded individuals congregate.
What Does the Future Have in Store?
Well, as Campbell and Manning pointed out a few years ago, the environment has never been more fertile for victimhood to thrive. Worryingly, since their study, the ground has become even more fertile. There was a time—not that long ago—when victim politics served a purpose, as when 9/11 survivors, legitimate victims of attack, campaigned for foreign policy reform. These people were not interested in eliciting sympathy from the masses; they weren’t interested in elevating their status. These people were trying to enact real change.
The Smollett hoax should serve as a cautionary tale. Victimhood has mutated into something malignant. It’s more a state of mind than a movement. One needn’t be a victim in the traditional sense. Now, it’s entirely possible to play the role of victim without having to experience anything particularly dramatic. In this age of hyper-connectivity, modern day victimhood is a form of acting, in which individuals don a Jungian mask. It’s an emotive call to action, which circumvents reason in the process.