If You Believed the Lie, It is not the Liar’s Fault
Following a full-throated series of online posts about the outrage and trauma felt about the Jussie Smollett attack, the posturing of condemnation of an Oppressor/Oppressed society, and the obvious inevitability of a racist president overseeing a racist society and when will it stop?, a certain online activist and podcast host went silent on the subject when it became apparent the attack was a fake.
I wondered if she would find some self-reflective moment to parse out how she felt when it was revealed that her knee jerk performative outrage had been misapplied when she discovered she had been duped by a charming liar using the victim empowerment campaign she had ascribed to and promotes routinely.
She finally posted a quick story about making up a stalker when she was a kid to get attention. That she was so focused on the lie and so drunk on the power her lie gave her, she began to believe her lie was true. Her closing phrase was “Judge not, lest you be judged.” She has since deleted the post.
One of my best friends in high school was a bit of an outcast and a charming liar. He had knocked up his girlfriend (a high crime in the very Christian section of small town Kansas) and subsequently dropped out of school. We would hang out after I was done for the day and get up to no good whenever we did.
He would show up in a brand new Firebird and tell me he had convinced the dealer he needed to test drive it, and then keep it for a few days. He could con his way into restaurants without a reservation, bars despite the fact that he was underage, and get payday loans without actually having a job. I knew he was a charming liar — it was never a secret from me. It, however, never even crossed my mind that, knowing that aspect of him, I could be the fish to his lure.
I went to college. I went out of state. He and I corresponded frequently, then I didn’t hear from him for a couple of weeks. When he finally resurfaced it was with unsettling news that he had been sick, went to the hospital and had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. He had no more than a few years left, he said. Anything you need, I said. Could I come to your campus and stay with you, he asked, intimating that as he was unlikely to ever attend college, he’d like to at least experience some of it before he croaked. Of course, I said.
He came to Arkansas. He stayed rent-free in my dorm room and ate off of my cafeteria card. He audited classes and partied. Eventually, it became obvious to me that he wasn’t sick at all, but I didn’t say anything because I simply couldn’t fathom why he would lie. I didn’t want to know he was duping me — I mean, how stupid was I for believing him and what did it say about me?
Months went by like this. Finally I confronted him. He tried to convince me he had gone into remission, that he was afraid I’d send him home if he told me. I pressed for anything to prove it. I bought him a bus ticket and sent him on his way.
I was embarrassed. For weeks, I talked at lunches about what a turd he was without much reflection on why I hadn’t pressed further, despite the obvious signs I was being played. I trusted him without a single moment of skepticism. I saw the signs that his story didn’t quite add up but accepted the horseshit willingly because it made me feel I was being the kind of friend I was supposed to be. My belief was not about him or his lie. My belief was about me and my perception of myself.
My belief was a choice. It was my choice. I was wrong, and so I can level no blame on him. For the same reason that I find it astonishing that anyone who smokes and gets lung cancer has the audacity to turn around and sue Big Tobacco, or someone who passively consumed the hateful, divisive rhetoric of Russian hackers but then claim it is Faceborg’s fault for not protecting them from their own gullibility, I cannot blame my lying friend for my trust in him despite the warning signs.
A lot of people bought into Jussie Smollett’s made up story of being attacked by MAGA-quoting white guys with a noose and bleach. He’s a charming liar, and believing the story both supported a bias within ourselves and a view of our place in the world. Early on, any comment made that questioned the veracity of the fiction was met with labels, insults and blanket statements of the horrors of the Trump support for racist, homophobic attacks. No one should feel sorry for believing him — there are plenty of actual racist and homophobic attacks that are true and provable to go around.
How, however, can so many who initially went hogwild with #believethevictims mania not admit they were wrong? Why is it so difficult to disavow Smollett as a charming liar, make no excuses for him, and understand that our belief was not about him or his hoax or racism or Trump but about ourselves? We believed him despite the glaring holes in his tale, because we wanted to believe him.
Why did we want to believe him? What does that desire say about us? Did we really believe his story or did believing it reinforce a narrative that we desperately want to expose? Has our Trump anxiety combined with a societal corrective and a culture of internet callouts and the politics of destruction rather than construction coalesced into a club of people willing to double down on what is obviously nonsense just to avoid admitting we were wrong about something?
Are we becoming like that segment of Trump supporters who hate the other side so much that they’d accept the blatant lie out of spite?
There’s a lot of squawk about Americans who vote against their own interests, and much of that is trying to shame that group into voting a different way. They are racist. They are sexist. They are too stupid to understand how socialism works or how corporatism destroys them faster than bullshit notions of immigration or diversity initiatives.
Perhaps it is simply that they cannot admit they were wrong. Maybe they justify their allegiance to the GOP by writing about how Hillary Clinton was a political shill who spoke out of both sides of her mouth or that they were once laid off by a company who then hired someone who looked different from them. Perhaps, instead of owning their mistakes, they write a piece explaining how they once made up a stalker and it became real due to the attention they received.