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The truth is often more complicated

Actor Jussie Smollett arriving at the Trevor Live

Actor Jussie Smollett arriving at the Trevor Live Los Angeles Gala 2018, in Beverly Hills, California on December 2, 2018. Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images / VALERIE MACON

The truth does not run, it walks.

It’s rarely known in an instant, or in 140 characters. Truth needs time to emerge, and patience from all of us to let that happen. The outrageous case of Jussie Smollett is just the latest proof of something we humans know well but keep forgetting.

Smollett, a black and openly gay actor on the TV show “Empire,” reported that he was the victim of an ugly hate crime three weeks ago. Now Chicago police say he made it up. They charged him Thursday with disorderly conduct for falsely describing an attack by two men who yelled racist and homophobic slurs and tied a rope around his neck. Police say he paid the men to stage the attack, to draw attention to himself because he wasn’t happy about his salary on the hit series.

Smollett’s actions were troubling. Visibly angered Chicago Police Supt. Eddie Johnson, who is black, said, “Why would anyone, especially an African-American, use the symbolism of a noose . . . to further his own public profile?” But some initial reactions to Smollett’s accusation, including by some political leaders, were also alarming. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris quickly accepted Smollett’s story. Harris tweeted that the alleged attack was an “attempted modern day lynching.” A former prosecutor, Harris should know better.

The filing of charges doesn’t prove or disprove the wisdom of snap judgments attacking or supporting Smollett. Either way, they were ill-advised. But the moral of this debacle is more than a bromide about not rushing to judgment. It fits in a larger narrative that’s poisoning our country. And if we don’t learn from what’s happening, we’re doomed.

A breakdown of institutions

Ours is an age in which words don’t seem to matter. They can’t be trusted because they often are false. As it becomes more difficult to determine what’s real and what’s not, we divide ourselves by what we believe to be true. This didn’t happen overnight. The virus infected us years ago. And the institutions that are supposed to keep us from fragmenting — religious, media, governmental — are not trusted or valued as they once were, either, after withering attacks on their credibility or irrelevance to people’s lives. The spread of social media has been rocket fuel for this fire. Now we are so quick to believe or disbelieve, so quick to accuse or defend, so quick to pick a side and inflame a situation. And truth grows ever more fragile.

We must de-escalate. We must re-establish the norms that guide conduct. We need to rebuild our institutions, but better; some need fixes, some overhauls. And we must relearn the lesson that news, like science, is provisional. It builds upon itself as facts are gathered, and that takes time. What’s understood today might not be true tomorrow.

American history is filled with incredible claims, some proved true, some hoaxes. Wrenching stories of abuse, even before the #MeToo era, invite us to pass judgment. Leaks from unidentified sources offer glimpses at purported crimes and exonerations. Chicago police investigated Jussie Smollett’s story for more than three weeks. It was a long process, and that process revealed a contradictory and more complicated set of facts. Let’s trust that truth, and remember that the next time we’re tempted to quickly pick a side.

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