Jussie Smollett is telling the truth. Or telling a truth. Or telling us something truer than the truth.
“A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried.
O’Brien wrote about war, the unfathomable experience of war. He believed that the facts, the truth, were insufficient to depict his experience, to get his message across, to transmit the horrors of being a soldier in Vietnam.
If that is unfathomable, how can we who are not possibly fathom the lifelong, manifold experience of being a Black, gay man in the United States?
Look, I was horrified when I heard what had happened to Jussie Smollett and I was horrified when I heard the story might have been manufactured by him. If he did concoct or direct the scene, I am, yes, angry, because I think it damages the cause of oppressed and abused minorities in this country and can be used as a rallying cry for Trump and MAGA supporters going forward. It has undoubtedly done damage. If he lied, I won’t presume to know what motivated it. If he lied, there should probably be some punishment for it. Not really my business.
Because the fact is, I don’t have to decide this case. I won’t be sitting on that jury or deciding whether to fire him. So I’m free to ask myself what I can learn from this. Maybe the attack shouldn’t be written off, even if it didn’t “happen.” Smollett’s reported attack was shocking, but believable because it has all happened. Black men are threatened with nooses by white men today. MAGA hat-wearing people have used racist and anti-LGBTQ language. Openly racist people can be violent. People are beaten up for being Black, or gay. (Only 3 states have explicitly outlawed the Gay/Trans Panic Defense, with which violent offenders can use the discovery of their victim’s gay or trans status as a defense for attacking or killing them.) The thing that made this attack stand out is that it all came together at once, and that it happened to a celebrity.
Maybe this happening didn’t happen; but it has happened and we all know it could happen and undoubtedly elements of it will continue to happen. Maybe the extremity of this story tells us something about being a gay, Black man in America. Maybe the feeling of vulnerability and danger could be commensurate with how someone might feel after this kind of assault. Maybe the horror we felt when we heard about it should motivate us to act as much as if the happening happened as he said it happened. Maybe the everyday horrors are just as horrific and worthy of outrage. Maybe we should acknowledge and address pervasive, national white supremacy and what it does to people.
I bristle at “believe women” as a given. But I can certainly support “listen to women.” Maybe we shouldn’t believe Jussie Smollett, but we should still listen to his story. He may be lying, but he’s still telling the truth.