Actor Jussie Smollett has been accused of staging the attack that catapulted him into the media spotlight. Most disturbingly, it has been claimed that the staged attack was a ploy to get a pay raise. It is, of course, important to note that Smollett has not been found guilty and must be considered innocent until proven guilty. The situation does, however, raise important moral concerns about staging a hate crime and this matter will be discussed in general terms, without making any judgment about Smollett’s guilt or innocence.
On the face of it, the ethics of staging a hate crime (or any crime) are quite straightforward: it is morally wrong to do this. As such, what really remains is an examination of why it is wrong and the extent of the wrongness.
The first, and most obvious, problem is that reporting a staged hate crime wastes police resources that could be used to address crimes that have actually occurred—including real hate crimes. From a utilitarian standpoint, this creates a degree of harm equal to the resources diverted from doing real police work.
There is, of course, also the immorality of the deceit itself—the self-inflicted moral harm of becoming a deceiver and maintaining the deceit. There is also the harm inflicted on the world itself. As Merlin said, “when a man lies, he murders some part of the world.” And also some part of himself. As such, even if such a staged crime does not have a significant impact in terms of diverting police resources, it still causes moral harm.
A very serious consequence of staging a hate crime is something that Jussie Smollett himself noted: when people learn that a hate crime has been staged, they are more likely to have doubts when real victims come forward to report crimes. And, of course, each case of deceit about such a crime increases the doubt—thus making it ever more reasonable to consider that a person reporting a hate crime is lying. As such, this sort of deceit does considerable harm to all present and future victims of hate crimes.
Another consequence is that it provides ammunition to those motivated to deny that hate crimes occur and to reject the claims of victims. Even though it is not yet known that Smollett is guilty or innocent, he has already become part of the “fake victim” memes that are circulating via social media. While some people will always deny claims made by (alleged) victims in groups they dislike, a proven staged hate crime would give their claims more impact. After all, they can say “I bet that this person is lying, just like that guy who faked the attack on himself.”
What is even worse is that people who commit actual hate crimes can make use of the existence of faked crimes in their defense. They can make the argument that the alleged victim is lying about the crime—a tactic that has long been used in cases of sexual assault.
It is also worth noting that there can also be harm done to those cast as the villains in the staged crime. For example, if Smollett did stage the attack and cast his attackers as Trump supporters, then some harm has been done to them. While some might think that all Trump supporters are racist homophobes who would attack a gay black actor, this is obviously an unfair stereotype. Naturally, Trump supporters cannot claim to be the biggest victim if Smollett turns out to have staged the attack, but such a faked attack would do them some harm. As such, faking a hate crime is morally wicked and has broad consequences.