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The Jussie Smollett Hoax Illustrates The Dangers Of Tribalism


In 1964, Dean Martin sang “You’re nobody ‘til somebody loves you.” In 2019, it seems like the opposite is true—you’re nobody until somebody hates you and lets you know it.

At least, that seems to be the impression Jussie Smollett had when he set about devising the plan for the hoax hate crime that has dominated the news lately. In need of something to help him stand out in Hollywood where everyone is richer, more famous, better looking, and more successful, Jussie knew that finding his personal x-factor would be a task.

So he did what no right-minded person in his shoes would do and faked a racist and homophobic attack on himself, confident that his new status as victim would be his ticket to martyrdom in the political sphere as well as personal success. What could be better than railing against the evils in society while boosting your own career? Given the toxic tribalism that now defines and divides our politics and culture, his confidence was not misplaced.

Tribalism inspires us to caricature and think the worst of the people outside of our tribes, which is the main reason this story gained any traction. In his book “Them: Why We Hate Each Other — and How to Heal,” Ben Sasse explains that society now falls “into ‘anti-tribes,’ defined by what we’re against rather than what we’re for. Hence the rise of social-media faux-communities devoted to how the other side is destroying everything good and true—and the cable news channels on left & right that thrive on outrage.”

Unsurprisingly, immediately following news of the attack, celebrities proved Sasse right when they assigned blame for what happened to Jussie. Billy Eichner tweeted, “Heartbroken and furious reading about the attack on @JussieSmollett. I want Trump and all MAGA lunatics to burn in hell.”

Ellen Page placed blame squarely on Mike Pence when she appeared on the “The Late Show with Colbert” and said, “Connect the dots. This is what happens. If you are in a position of power and you hate people and you want to cause suffering to them, you go through the trouble, you spend your career trying to cause suffering — what do you think is going to happen? Kids are going to be abused, and they’re going to kill themselves and people are going to be beaten on the street.”

These immediate reactions to a very new, very sketchy, still developing story explain why Jussie was so sure he would be believed. The faux hate crime scenario he had created plays so perfectly into what the left believes (hopes?) Republicans are actually like, that all the obvious problems and bright red flags with the fantasy didn’t matter. We have heard over and over that this is the sort of thing Republicans would do, and therefore this bad thing that we are hearing about them now must be true. How could it not be?

The funny thing about tribalism, though, is while we are busy caricaturing others, we become caricatures of ourselves. In our quest to prove our loyalty to the group, we turn into extremists. That’s been obvious in the news cycle over the last month, which has been replete with stories of politicians doing and saying mind-boggling or downright stupid things.

From advocating infanticide to supporting open borders and an absurd Green New Deal, it seems like those in the public eye are enthusiastically embracing increasingly extreme positions that were taboo or seemed inconceivable just a few years ago, and remain impractical at best. That’s because tribalism demands all-or-nothing from us if we wish to remain part of the tribe.

The result of this is that many who adhere to tribalism, like Jussie, feel they’re not doing enough for their cause until and unless they can suffer for it—which creates a desire for victimhood. In this brave new world (because was he not the bravest of soldiers, the gay Tupac, fighting his attackers?), praise has taken a backseat to pity.

Of course, this sentiment has not found a stronghold only among the left. Tribalism on the right also nurtures the sense that there is value in victimhood. Republicans enjoy claiming victimhood and ostracism in schools, universities, and in their jobs and personal lives. They profess suffering at the hands of the left because of their religious beliefs and, more recently, because of their fashion choices. But, it certainly appears that with President Trump in power the left has capitalized on being a victim the most (occasionally dishonestly), and with more publicity than ever before.

The Curious Case of Jussie Smollett and the Mysterious MAGA Attackers shows us why it is dangerous to allow tribalism to shape and influence our society and how we engage with and treat each other. We become irrational. We do stupid things for stupid reasons, believe stupid things, say stupid things, support stupid things, willingly transform ourselves into victims for the cause and for our own gain, and end up looking like pitiful, ridiculous characters in a television sitcom.

While pointing out how great it must be to be in a mental institution with all your family and friends visiting and feeling sorry for you, George Costanza said, “Pity is very underrated. I like it. It’s good.” Never in a million years did I ever think we would get to a point where we took George Costanza seriously, but here we are.