In his second inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln graciously brought to a close what Frederick Douglass called a “sacred effort” by saying: “With malice toward none, with charity for all … let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds … to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
About a month later, Lincoln was to be assassinated by the Southern partisan, John Wilkes Booth. The country was nearing the end of the American Civil War, which killed 620,000 men, about 2% of the entire population. The bloodiest war in American history was the culmination of a decade of rancor and recriminations over slavery that witnessed John Brown’s quixotic raid on a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, sectarian violence in Bleeding Kansas precipitated by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Dred Scott decision, and Charles Sumner’s five-hour diatribe on the Senate floor, in which he railed about the Crime Against Kansas and claimed, at one point, that Senator Andrew Butler from South Carolina had taken a harlot (i.e. slavery) for a mistress, a calumny against Southern honor which instigated Representative Preston Brooks—driven to preserve the Southern honor of his distant cousin—to retaliate by nearly clubbing Sumner to death in the Senate chamber, with “thighs…pinned between his chair and his desk.”
Clearly, the current polarization of social discourse in America is not the worst it has ever been. Even the turbulent 1960s could give this era of alt-right fanatics and social justice warriors a run for its money. Nonetheless, the battle lines have been drawn, and volcanic passions are seemingly ready to erupt with the surfacing of every indiscretion on Twitter—or especially with such serious affairs as Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal and the saga of Jussie Smollett. We relish the misfortunes of anyone who seems to embody the reified injustices believed to be lurking in every nook and cranny of the world in which we are all condemned to live.
It is perhaps this reification fallacy, in conjunction with other cognitive biases, that explains our tendency to turn strangers into cartoon villains. In contrast, Abraham Lincoln chose empathy over antipathy in a society fissured by a breakdown in the social fabric, which eventually led to secession and war.
This is all the more remarkable given how Lincoln was often treated by his contemporaries. As Mark Bowden has explained, Lincoln was repeatedly vilified: “[h]is ancestry was routinely impugned, his lack of formal learning ridiculed, his appearance maligned, and his morality assailed.” The smears came from North and South; they were recorded in “editorials, speeches, journals and private letters” and even came from ostensible allies. Both George Templeton Strong and George McClellan dubbed him a “gorilla.” Henry Ward Beecher deemed him “an unshapely man.” Elizabeth Cady Stanton christened him “Dishonest Abe.” Charles Sumner claimed that Lincoln “lacks practical talent for his important place.” William P. Fessenden said he was “weak as water.” As Doris Kearns Goodwin recounts in Team of Rivals, Lincoln found himself navigating not only rivalries among members of his cabinet, but treacherous insubordination by one of his own advisors (Salmon Chase). Yet Lincoln retained both his poise and his magnanimity, and, in the end, it was his empathy (together with his magnificent intelligence and rhetorical sensitivity) which enabled him to craft the compromises and policies that would save a nation.
In Lincoln’s Melancholy, Joshua Wolf Shenk relates that when asked why he decided to pardon Civil War deserters, Lincoln replied: “It would frighten the poor devils to death to shoot them.” The greatest president in American history—for whom victory in war was the highest priority—expressed pity for deserters, instead of, Trump-like, heaping indignities and denunciations upon them and condemning them to execution. Perhaps Lincoln was soft, but nevertheless the North won the war, and Lincoln’s contributions to the victory stemmed at least in part from a profound empathy with the human condition, an empathy that helped him make the hard compromises necessary to preserve the Union, emancipate four million enslaved people, and foster the kind of forgiveness bestowed not by a milquetoast pushover or feckless indecisive stooge, but by a man whose inner light of compassion convinced him that redemption was more important than condemnation and whose words of reconciliation advocated malice towards none and charity for all.
Trump is no Lincoln, to put it mildly. Thus, when news broke that Jussie Smollett had filed a false police report about being the victim of a heinous assault by Trump supporters, it came as no surprise that Trump could not resist taunting Smollett with a tweet that expressed self-righteous outrage and a hint of schadenfreude not atypical of a man notorious for his sophomoric broadsides: “what about MAGA and the tens of millions of people you insulted with your racist and dangerous comments!?” This is not how Lincoln would have handled the matter.
In late January, Empire actor Jussie Smollett reported that he had been the victim of a racist and homophobic hate crime by two “masked assailants [who] poured ‘an unknown chemical substance’ on him, possibly bleach, and wrapped a rope around his neck.” Moreover, Smollett claimed that the attackers announced their allegiance to “MAGA country,” a clear implication that they were supporters of Trump. The affair turned out to be a hoax. According to Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie T. Johnson, Smollett staged the attack as a “publicity stunt … Jussie Smollett took advantage of the pain and anger of racism to promote his career.”
Predictably, the news unleashed a torrent of vitriol across the social and political spectrum. In Rush Limbaugh land, there was outrage. The New York Post ran the headline “Jussie Smollett ‘Attack’ Proves the Media’s Rush to Judgment.” In the rabbit hole of Twitter—where “responsible men and women … with awesome educations and much to lose … turn into excrement-flinging six-year-olds [and] deploy grade-school sarcasm, slander, baiting, slurs, impudence, mixed metaphors and threats toward … strangers”—one need only type #JussieSmollettHoax into the search engine to see what kind of mayhem was wrought.
Right-leaning commentators, such as Dinesh D’Souza, James Woods and Candace Owens, all had their say. Among the left-leaning commentary, an “angry” and “upset” Donna Brazile opined that Smollett “owes not only the city of Chicago an apology—there are real-life victims out there today and I refuse to shut up because he played a terrible game and it’s painful.” Meanwhile, outspoken feminist Roxane Gay did not help the cause of due process by tweeting that she had “not one regrets [sic] about believing him” and that “I’m not going to stop believing people who say they have suffered because more often than not they are telling the truth.”
Gay did not cite relevant data, which is not to dispute her claim (which may be true), but to point out that she did not help mitigate the degeneration of discourse by failing to assist her readers in the arduous task of verifying her claims (What is meant by “suffered”? Does “more often than not” imply a plurality or majority of such claims? In an age of postmodern sensibilities, what is meant by “the truth”?) Nonetheless, Gay correctly insisted that “homophobia and racism are still problems … one man’s lie doesn’t erase these very real problems.” Then she delivered a mordant rebuke of the rampant schadenfreude so characteristic of our time: “And if you’re crowing online about this man’s lie as if you’re not really as terrible as you are … enjoy the moment I guess and good luck.”
Human beings have always exhibited a keen interest in the misfortune and public shaming of others. A nuanced examination of schadenfreude might even reveal psychic benefits. Schadenfreude is standard fare on comic shows like Saturday Night Live, which recently entered the fray, and for extemporaneous comedians like Charles Barkley, who mocked Smollett while commentating on NBA basketball. But this schadenfreude is also a chilling example of how narrow the band is within which human empathy and forgiveness operate in a fractured, polarized and tweet-frenzied society. No wonder some are talking about the prospect of a civil war.
In an age in which thoughts are habitually condensed into tweet-worthy sound bites, we may have lost the Lincolnesque capacity to consider the difference between apt punishment—which requires weighing the pros and cons of deterrence, rehabilitation, retribution and atonement—and the lizard-brain digital shaming unleashed on political enemies when they make mistakes. Instead of considering why a man who already enjoyed fame and prestige jeopardized everything by undertaking such a perverse scheme, we devour him until he vanishes, as if he were a heretic from Orwell’s 1984.
We should not allow Smollett’s serious violation of decency, ethics and law to go unpunished. But digital schadenfreude hardly improves matters—especially given the virulence of social discourse in an age when the occupant of the White House is as surpassed by Lincoln in competence and temperament as perhaps any president in American history. Smollett’s harebrained behavior certainly did not help matters: it fanned the flames of rancorous controversy that have consumed civilized discourse in recent decades. But the urge to excoriate and shame him is counterproductive. Instead, we should try to fathom the dark depths of mental illness which presumably prompted this scheme, while attempting to find a more constructive way of ushering him toward penance and redemption.
This is not to condone his act. We should not underestimate how much more pressure this hoax places on those courageous victims who speak up. I can only imagine how many victims are struggling in silence to recover from the ongoing anxieties caused by past traumas. America may not be wallowing in the miasmic bed of racism and homophobia it was a half-century ago (and even more so in Lincoln’s lifetime), but that doesn’t mean progress is complete. Smollett’s hoax distracts our attention from the injustices that continue to occur.
Smollett’s hoax also sheds light on the gullibility of the media and on anonymous alt-right fanatics and overzealous social justice warriors, who lack the patience of due process stalwarts. In addition, sadly, this has played into Trump’s fake news narrative. As I have argued elsewhere with regard to Sarah Jeong: “when the media is reluctant to condemn offensive comments about white people, while rightly quick to condemn offensive comments about racial and ethnic minorities, it feeds the narrative of a double standard that no decent person can accept. This reinforces “the public’s visceral distrust of the news media,” which existed long before Trump became president, and “is the sort of thing that will energize [Trump’s] supporters, motivate them to vote, and aid his re-election campaign.”
The media did this again recently, when a short video went viral, showing a confrontation between MAGA-hat-wearing Catholic school kids from Covington, KY and Native American activists, outside the Lincoln Memorial. The mainstream media and Twitter mobs went off the rails, firing off a fusillade of hatred at the teenagers. For more details, see this illuminating piece by Andrew Sullivan, who meticulously describes the original provocateurs, members of a fringe group, who call themselves the Black Hebrew Israelites. But one contemporary article emerged on the day after the confrontation, after a longer video had become available, offering the judicious advice to stop trusting viral videos that feed ready-made media narratives and explaining how “[t]he progressive media ran with a story that confirmed their intersectional priors and, in the process, damaged their credibility, established an unsustainable precedent, and unwittingly affirmed President Trump’s demagogic ‘Fake News’ mantra.”
Trump undoubtedly knows how to dial up the rhetoric, as evidenced by his fiery announcement speech and by any of the 155 craziest things Trump said during his election campaign. Trump’s antics are invariably provocative, boorish and offensive. But is the fake news claim farfetched? Does it make him an enemy of the free press? It sure doesn’t seem so in view of the way Smollett’s initial allegation dominated the headlines before it was exposed as a massive lie.
The seeds of this were planted long before Trump became president—at the latest when Obama accused Fox News of being “destructive to [America’s] long-term growth,” and the media failed to rebuke him. Trump is simply reaping the harvest. Smollett’s hoax was merely the latest win in Trump’s rhetorical war against fake news. The media—and the vicious trolls who wallow in digital schadenfreude—have only themselves to blame.
When a celebrity like Smollett leads a gullible media by the nose and then Twitter mobs unleash their venom on him after the hoax is exposed, social discourse dissolves into a cesspool of tribalism and we forget the remarkable progress America has made towards racial justice since the Civil War. As Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson wrote in the wake of the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Justice Clarence Thomas:
The sociological truths are that America, while still flawed in its race relations and its stubborn refusal to institute a rational, universal welfare system, is now the least racist white-majority society in the world; has a better record of legal protection of minorities than any other society, white or black; offers more opportunities to a greater number of black persons than any other society, including all those of Africa; and has gone through a dramatic change in its attitude toward miscegenation over the past twenty-five years.
Unfortunately, Jesus is unlikely to show up anytime soon, to remind us that only he who has not sinned should cast the first stone. Malice and schadenfreude will continue to thrive like a cancer, at the expense of the social discourse, galvanizing social media trolls, who compete to produce the most outlandish and merciless condemnations of perpetrators, thus distracting attention from real victims, whose abuse goes unnoticed. Roxane Gay’s tweet included this poignant lamentation: “It’s all a goddamned shame. I hope Smollett gets the help he must very much need. I hope he comes to realize the damage he has done and atones for it somehow. What a mess. What a travesty.”
Twenty years ago, Monica Lewinsky endured one of the most devastating traumas one can imagine for a twenty-something young woman. We should not confuse Smollett, a perpetrator of injustice, with Lewinsky, a victim of injustice, but Lewinsky’s case should remind us that public figures in the cross-fire of malice and schadenfreude are not the one-dimensional creatures we make them out to be when we shine a spotlight on them, in a desire to feed our medieval appetite for public shaming. When we lose our capacity for forgiveness, and fail to consider more redemptive forms of penance, we are fanning the flames of division that have been burning in America for decades. Lincoln saved a nation and pled for malice toward none. Let us not help destroy the nation he saved by throwing our adversaries—even Smollett—to the wolves of malice and schadenfreude.