Why we should all avoid the Jussie Smollett-Style rush to judgment

We still don’t know all the facts surrounding Jussie Smollett – so let’s not rush to condemnation with the same fury his supporters rushed to judgment about his “attackers.” As troubled as he may be, he is entitled to due process.

The latest evidence presented by the Chicago police, however, points to disturbing pathological behavior. People who weave complex webs of deceit believe their own reality, sufficient to pass a lie detector test. If true, Smollett’s behavior is tragic and, as I articulated earlier on ETInside.com, may be unrecoverable.

Smollett may very well have done so much damage to victims of hate crimes that we will spend far more time debating the truth of future accusations than curing the disease. His own smoldering career is just an afterthought.

Richard Nixon’s career was anything but an afterthought. Nixon’s compulsive lying, anger, and anxiety were known to his close staff, but one could argue that from his perspective, holding onto power by any means necessary had a higher calling, even if it was unconstitutional. Nixon also clung to a legal argument, though flawed, that the president couldn’t violate the law. While you and I don’t accept those arguments, they have at least a thread of authenticity.

What does Smollett have? A desire to get paid more and, perhaps, to not be written out of a series? There is no higher calling here – just an actor trying to get another close up, Mr. DeMille. And the great irony is how talented Smollett is. He very quickly would have gotten other work – and likely even better parts.

This is fascinating because it is the quintessential example of the confusion between reality and digital fantasy. Other immediate examples are President Donald Trump, who, according to White House source, perceives the presidency as a daily reality series driven by ratings; and, tragically, teen suicides driven by misplaced anxiety over the “value” of their online persona.

To me, the larger issue – the rush to judgment – is the topic du jour. Politicians, TV talking heads, even the NAACP decided to interpret the sparse initial information to fit their pre-existing narrative. We are all doing that, experiencing a rush to judgment where the instantaneous need to embrace a symbol to prove our righteousness substantially outweighs the patience of fact-gathering – and the reflection that only time can grant. We may be a post-truth society, but it has morphed into a wisdom-less one where patience is no longer a virtue, but grandstanding is. If all we care about as a society is leveraging moments to justify our existence, then we are all Narcissus, too in love with our own reflection to look past the water to see life far beyond the reflecting pool.

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For some of us, even before the artificial intelligence revolution takes hold, we no longer know what reality is. Therein lies the greatest danger. Time, distance, past, present, self, the digital self, the TV self. They are all melding.

The fantastic, though inaccurate, tale about George “Superman” Reeves’ being killed because he deluded himself that he could fly is believed to this day because he was another actor who appeared to have succumbed to the illusion of his profession. Smollett may be an extreme version of that fate, but for those who have come of age in the digital era, where virtual reality often wins out over real reality, it’s not a complete shocker. The fact that we have to use “real” as an adjective to “reality” says it all.

If Smollett did indeed orchestrate a fake attack and fabricate a story, then there really isn’t much to say from a reputational (and career) recovery point of view. First, stay out of jail; second, stay out of jail. Rinse and repeat.

Then volunteer a heartfelt admission and apology (without adding to legal exposure) before prosecutors force you to do it; include a plausible explanation (not to be confused with an excuse) that at least engenders some empathy; and then disappear for a while, ala Betty Ford. If he really wants a future platform, he can become a spokesperson (e.g., Rodney King) for the “I was very wrong and I’m sorry but look what my bad act uncovered – we should all stop rushing to judgment” chorus of which there are far too few singers. There is an old saying in the crisis business – “You can’t talk your way out of something you acted your way into.”

We live in a complex world, made more so by the avalanche of information rushing around us, literally more in a year than our grandparents had to deal with in a lifetime. We are to be forgiven if we don’t know how to deal with this new toxicity of over-information just yet. But our future depends on our getting this right.

We shouldn’t look past Jussie Smollett, Ralph Northam, Justin Fairfax, Nick Sandman, Al Franken and all the rest. They are signposts directing us to slow down and digest. My late father, fearful that as a child I ate too quickly, used to counsel, “chew, chew, swallow.” This remains terrifically good advice for all of us.

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