A few weeks ago, someone made an observation on Twitter that struck me as exceptionally wise (this happens every once in a super blood moon). The observation had to do with the concept of “overfeeling”:
“You’re over-feeling this” needs to be a thing we can say as easily as we suggest “overthinking” it. Yet, we talk about “Groupthink” when “Groupfeel” is the new wave transforming our public sphere.
The tweeter was mathematician and economist Eric Weinstein, who frequently has things to say about the collapse of intellectually honest conversation. And while “groupfeel,” depending on how you define it, could describe the kind of emotional stirring-up and fearmongering that Donald Trump has been trafficking in for decades (from the Central Park Five to his current hysteria about immigrants), the occasion for this tweet, as far as I could tell, was mostly ambient. Weinstein was registering frustration at the way public discourse increasingly eschews actual logic for a sort of culturally agreed upon standard of emotional logic.
It’s possible, too, that he was referring to the saga of the Covington video, a viral, Rashomon-evoking document that, from certain angles and when viewed for certain durations, appeared to show a “Make America Great Again” hat-wearing white male Catholic high school student smirking at a Native American elder during protest marches in Washington, D.C., on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
After an avalanche of online outrage about the student’s white privilege, toxic masculinity, and whatever else people wanted to project onto the situation, it became evident there was more going on. The kids, it turned out, had gotten caught up in some verbal sparring with a fringier-than-fringe group of anti-everythingists (or just about) known as the Black Hebrew Israelites. The Native elder was apparently trying to intervene between the two groups by banging a drum in the face of the teenager. (Maybe not the best method for de-escalating a tense situation, but who knows until you try?)
After an avalanche of online outrage, it became evident that there was more going on.
It hardly mattered, though. By the time those details began to emerge — not to mention the detail that the video had originated with a mysterious Twitter account that may have existed primarily to stir up trouble — the kids were being doxxed, and prominent, ostensibly grownup media figures were tweeting that the kids deserved to be punched in the face. Even as the contours of the story began to shift away from the original narrative, plenty of people on the left carried on with the idea that the kids were guilty by virtue of the hats alone. “The red MAGA hat is the new white hood,” tweeted the actress and activist Alyssa Milano, a de facto spokesperson for the Trump resistance.
So there’s an example of trial by groupfeel.
Just as we were recovering from that adventure, another round of unfettered groupfeel entered the news cycle. The story was horrifying by any measure. In the early morning hours of Jan. 29, Jussie Smollett, a black and openly gay actor and musician who stars on the Fox television show Empire, was reportedly attacked by two men in ski masks as he left a Subway sandwich shop near his apartment in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood. According to Smollett’s initial description to police, the men yelled racial and homophobic slurs, punched Smollett in the face, placed a rope around his neck, and doused him with a chemical that might have been bleach. In a later interview with police, Smollett said that the men had yelled, “MAGA country.”
The public response was equal parts apoplectic and inconsolable. Celebrities tweeted in solidarity. “I am disgusted and horrified to hear of the homophobic and racial attack on Jussie Smollett last night,” wrote Mindy Kaling. “Unfortunately, these hateful attacks happen way too often.” Empire creator Lee Daniels posted an emotional video in which he remarked that this was “just another fucking day in America.” Newly announced Democratic presidential candidates expressed shock and disapproval, with Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York calling the attack “sickening and outrageous” and Sen. Kamala Harris of California and Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey likening it to a “modern day lynching.”
On Thursday on the Late Show With Stephen Colbert, actress Ellen Page made a tearful statement about the dismal and terrifying state of things overall, connecting Vice President Mike Pence’s anti-LGBTQ positions to incidents like the one Smollett described. “If you are in a position of power and you hate people and you want to cause suffering to them, you go through the trouble, you spend your career trying to cause suffering, what do you think is going to happen?” Page said. “Kids are going to be abused and they’re going to kill themselves and people are going to be beaten up on the street.”
Given the genuinely disturbing details of the story, those are entirely appropriate responses. They are also, at this point, entirely the product of groupfeel. Police have no suspects in the case so far; only two persons of interest seen on surveillance cameras appear to have been in the vicinity at the time. There’s video footage of Smollett in the Subway store by himself and, some time later, walking into a friend’s apartment building with a rope around his neck. But other than that, there is no recorded evidence of an attack. Smollett, who says he was on the phone with his manager when the attack commenced, hasn’t yet turned over his phone to the police nor has the manager.
None of this is to say the attack didn’t happen nor do certain unlikelihoods about the story mean that the story couldn’t be true. Those unlikelihoods include the fact that Chicago, which gave Hillary Clinton 83 percent of the vote in 2016, is hardly “MAGA country” and not the first place you’d imagine people to be running around with nooses and chemicals looking to commit racist and homophobic hate crimes — in subzero weather no less (the low that night in Chicago reached -23 degrees).
Since we have so few facts to work with, people’s feelings will carry the day.
But by late last week, enough people were wondering about those unlikelihoods that a second narrative emerged: that Smollett was embellishing certain details of the attack or even making it up altogether. Though no one in any official media capacity was using words like “hoax” or “lie,” I noticed by Friday that some skepticism was burbling up in comment threads. This instantly gave way to a third narrative — one that said questioning Smollett’s story was racist and homophobic in and of itself and that hate crimes are now so rampant in the Trump era that anyone who doesn’t think there are people running around with nooses and bleach in sub-zero weather in Chicago is fooling themselves.
There is some evidence that Smollett may have been directly targeted. According to some reports, threatening mail addressed to Smollett was delivered to Fox Studios in the days and weeks prior to the attack. This letter is said to have included racially threatening language and a death threat spelled out in letters cut from magazines, ransom-note style, in addition to an unidentified white powder. In a childlike scrawl, someone allegedly had written “MAGA” on the envelope’s return-address corner.
Smollett’s family, a powerhouse of performing talent (all five of Jussie’s siblings are working actors or musicians), released a statement on Friday underscoring the idea that the crime hadn’t been random.
“We want people to understand that these targeted hate crimes are happening to our sisters, brothers and our gender non-conforming siblings, many who reside within the intersection of multiple identities, on a monthly, weekly and sometimes even hourly basis across all our country,” the family wrote in an Instagram post. “Oftentimes ending fatally, these are inhumane acts of domestic terrorism and they should be treated as such.”
On Saturday night, Smollett performed a concert in Los Angeles, telling his sold-out audience that he was okay and wasn’t going to “harp on” what happened. After pulling out a piece of paper and reading from it to clarify a few points (contrary to early reports, his ribs hadn’t been broken and he hadn’t been hospitalized), he added, to an eruption of cheers, “above all, I fought the fuck back.”
I have absolutely no idea what happened to Smollett that night. What I do have are certain feelings about the story — namely that it has enough holes in it to warrant skepticism or at least a withholding of judgment and further speculation until more facts are in. But my feelings ultimately don’t matter any more than Ellen Page’s feelings about the attack ultimately being Mike Pence’s fault. That is to say, they don’t matter as much as the facts. But since we have so few facts to work with on this, people’s feelings — whether they skew toward skepticism or unwavering belief — will carry the day.
There are those who will say that even if Smollett’s story doesn’t add up, it doesn’t really matter because people are suffering and dying at the hands of this corrupt administration and we need all the teachable moments we can get. I get the logic. Reports of hate crimes in the U.S. are up 17 percent since Trump entered office. The specter of Charlottesville will haunt the public imagination for the foreseeable future. But that kind of logic also reminds me of a scene from the 2005 film The Squid and the Whale. When a teenage boy is caught trying to pass off Pink Floyd’s “Hey You” as a song he wrote himself, he justifies his lie by saying, “I felt that I could have written it, so the fact that it was already written was kind of a technicality.”
If groupthink is what happens when people pick and choose their facts, groupfeel is what happens when there aren’t enough facts to work with and we substitute emotion for logic and write off reality as a technicality. That leads to a devastating sort of moral riddle. As much as I hope Smollett wasn’t really the victim of such an ugly crime, I hope even more that he’s telling the truth. Either way, we should feel ashamed.