Everyone is mad at Jussie Smollett right now: Progressives, many of whom fiercely expressed sympathy and support for Smollett shortly after his attack only to be embarrassed by these latest revelations. Conservatives, who are tired of hate crime hoaxes that invariably make conservatives look bad. And, especially, supporters of President Donald Trump — many of whom were slandered and reviled for their tenuous association with the apparently fake "attack." Most people don’t like this man; many openly hate him.
Here’s an alternative: Consider feeling sorry for Jussie Smollett.
Several weeks ago the actor — who is both black and gay — was reportedly attacked as part of a brutal, bigoted hate crime perpetrated by supporters of Donald Trump. Now it appears that he fabricated the entire thing, reportedly as a way to advance his career and increase his salary on the hit television show "Empire." That plan backfired spectacularly: Smollett was written out of the show’s final two episodes this season, and it’s in doubt whether he’ll return to the show at all.
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Such are the wages of greed. Reports from the Associated Press and other news organizations suggest Smollett was being paid $65,000 to $100,000 per episode — not anywhere near the top level of television salaries, but a staggering sum nonetheless. Smollett wanted even more money on top of the copious amounts he was already earning; now he is earning no money and he probably has no career. He’s become a global laughingstock and will likely be known as a fraud for the rest of his life.
In one sense it’s understandable to feel disdain for Smollett, a man who apparently committed several serious crimes, wasted hundreds of police man-hours, and marshaled the support of countless well-meaning people across the country — all in service to a stupid self-serving falsehood. At the very least, most people can agree that Smollett should suffer some legal consequences for his terrible behavior.
Justice, compassion are not exclusive
But justice and compassion are not mutually exclusive. Punitive measures need not occur in a vacuum. You can want Smollett to pay for his behavior while still feeling pity and humanity toward him.
This is not at all an obvious proposal, at least not in our society, where social media has made vicious, merciless public executioners out of many of us. Many people seem to relish the chance to hate, to despise, to execrate and mock each other. Public disdain has become a national pastime. We revel in mass humiliation and retribution.
This brutal sort of public sport invariably obscures the truth of the moment. We like to make villains out of the people we like to hate. But almost nobody is a villain. Smollett himself is not a villain; at worst he is a greedy, stupid man, beset by idiotic impulses and motivated by a base, pitiful desire for more money and more fame. He is not Lex Luthor; he’s more like an inept shoplifter caught trying to steal a canned ham, the sort of crime that’s arguably more pathetic than shocking.
Smollett will pay for the rest of his life
What Smollett did was more serious than shoplifting, of course. But then again the consequences of his behavior are more serious still. Smollett will probably face some sort of prison sentence; he will likely become unemployable in the entertainment industry, the one job he’s known his whole life; most of his friends will probably lose most of their respect for him; even most of his family members will probably look at him differently, and more negatively.
Anyone who has ever embarrassed and alienated those closest to him will be able to tell you what a miserable experience it is. It’s like being evicted from one’s own life. Smollett is going to learn this the hard way. Nobody should envy him.
Yes, what Smollett did was terrible. No, there was no excuse for it. Yes, he should suffer consequences for it. But you do not have to hate him for it, and in fact there is great virtue in taking pity on him. He is in a lonely, miserable place right now, set apart from the rest of us, staring down a very dark path and facing a lifetime of awful repercussions.
You could do worse things than feel compassion for a man so beset by colossal stupidity and monumental suffering. The world is never in need of more anger. Hating Jussie Smollett will not solve anything at all. And feeling sorry for him will not hurt anything.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jussie Smollett deserves punishment for hate crime hoax, but he also deserves compassion