Why Hate Crime Hoaxes Are Good
Or at least, quite useful.
I’m surprised that in many of my readings regarding hate crimes and hate crime hoaxes, the following obvious note is neglected: Hoaxes proliferate widely not when hate crimes are the highest, nor when the victims are most at risk: but at the times when they are commonly believed to be most at risk and when this treatment is widely believed to be unjust.
In other words, hate crimes proliferate in an intolerant society. Hate crime hoaxes proliferate in a society that hates that intolerance.
That sounds counter-intuitive, but it must be true. In order for a hoax to “work”, it must be presented to an audience that would find the act both believable and appalling. There is no use, for example, for a single Jew in Nazi Germany to make up a hate crime—not many would have found the idea objectionable in the first place. But if the single Jew becomes a small community, the incentive for a hoax can exist. Now, at least among a small group, the fraudster can expect both belief and support. The incentives to invent victimization increase as the base of sympathy towards the victimized group increases. We can invert that same scenario to illustrate this as well: There were countless lies made up to defame Jews in Nazi Germany among the mainstream German population, which worked despite clear evidence of Jewish persecution.
There are caveats to this, of course. It is possible, for example, to have a society so divided and fractious that it is both extremely hateful and also brimming with people who hate hate. But as a general rule, hoaxes are one indication of the social power of a group within a larger community. Jussie Smollet could benefit from a victimization story in 2020 America, not in 1950 America (nor, it is worth mentioning, 2020 Saudi Arabia). More interestingly, if there is a “believable perpetrator”, hoaxes may also be evidence of the stigmatization of another group.
In the Antebellum South, for example, popular culture painted black men as depraved, hyper-sexualized brutes and white women as pure, virtuous, and uniquely desirable. When a white woman falsely accused a black man of rape, the accusation alone was as good as a death sentence. It is sometimes said that such false stories were spread to stigmatize black men, and no doubt they were, but I think the truth is much more circular than that. The black man was a believable villain in her fiction because he was already expected to be a rapacious monster.
Today, we recognize the evil of slavery, and broadly acknowledge that the aftereffects of black subjugation remain with us even now. Interestingly, in some parts of society, the old stereotypes have been inverted: black men now cast as virtuous victims, white women as hateful victimizers. In line with the new conventions, the expectation is that the white woman will use her vulnerability to unjustly demonize a black man. So when that appears to be the case (like with the “Central Park Karen”), we jump to the conclusion we’ve already made, and ignore evidence that there may be more to the story.
But the so-called Karens, while deemed to be believably guilty in most scenarios, are not the true social lepers of our world. That dubious honor is held by white men. Accordingly, it is white males who are almost always the invented villain in outright hoaxes, as they are “the most believable perpetrator” (and can be made more believable when described as wearing red hats). Of course one might say “it is easy to believe that a white man is a bad guy because white men often are bad guys”. And this may very well be true. But anyone with an understanding of the history of oppression knows that popular belief and truth are almost never well-aligned, and it is dangerous to assume that belief is always evidence of reality.
However, hoaxes are useful to understand the psychology of a society at any given moment because they elucidate what that society expects to see, the sympathies the hoaxer hopes to exploit. In other words, they illustrate our biases. Sometimes those biases are based on reality (yes, biases can be rational), but sometimes, they are based on the reality of another time. We are slow to update our mental models, and by the time “everyone knows” about a particular injustice or power relation, it may not even be true at all. This is what I call the Lag Problem of Progress–the most marginalized people in any given society are those whose victimhood is not even recognized as victimhood. Meanwhile, those whose victimhood status is widely agreed upon are now necessarily better off now than they were before it was acknowledged at all. In some cases, the lag presents a paradox: if a group attains popular status as “most victimized”, the recognition itself is an indication that the status is no longer true.
The lag is, of course, natural and not in itself a problem—social power is always shifting, and it takes time for the collective consciousness to be “updated” with the more current data. However, if the “reality update” is artificially thwarted—if the information is suppressed deliberately for any number of reasons—a variety of social ills, and even outright injustices, can rapidly multiply unseen.
So in this sense, victimization hoaxes can be useful. Every society will see some hoaxes, from time to time. But a conspicuous rise in hoaxes is a sign of a Lag that is being exploited, of assumptions taken too long for granted.