After fumbling around in court for nearly three months, Michigan resident Halley Bass admitted recently to faking a hate crime against herself in November, following Donald Trump’s surprise presidential victory.
Bass claimed that a middle-aged white man had attacked her with a safety pin in an alleyway near a downtown Ann Arbor movie theater. Since she was wearing an anti-Brexit solidarity pin at the time, she told the police that she believed the man had slashed at her because her pin indicated she did not support Trump.
Although it was later revealed that Bass has mental disorders and fabricated the incident to hide the fact that she had scratched herself, fake hate crimes have become common in the wake of Trump’s presidential victory. Several other incidents occurred in Ann Arbor alone—which is home to the University of Michigan—most notably that of a female Muslim college student who claimed a man had threatened to set her hijab on fire if she did not take it off. Police later determined that this, too, was a hoax. In an even more recent incident, a Muslim man made false bomb threats against Muslim students at Concordia University in Montreal on March 2.
Now that Trump has been in office for a few months and his immigration bans and anti-Muslim rhetoric have gone through several iterations and revisions, the full effects of these fake hate crimes are becoming apparent. Fake hate crimes don’t stop Trump and they don’t prevent his administration from implementing unpopular policies. They harm the way we relate to each other.
When people deface their own identities to undermine an opposing ideology, they might think they are operating with the subterfuge of a defeated political faction, but they also show what happens when a society prizes individualism above all else. Hate crimes—real or fake—can only occur when we become self-obsessed and forget how to love each other.
In the case of the Muslim man at Concordia, his actions may have stirred up ire against Islamophobes for a couple of hours—until it was discovered he was only using an already socially polarizing issue for his own ends. The same could be said of Bass, whose actions were just another attention-seeking attempt to feel like part of the anti-Trump “resistance.”
People don’t attack their own identity, their own background, or their own faith without first forsaking their relationship to society. What makes us fully ourselves is the ability to give, to interact with each other, and above all to live in a community. When we can’t trust our neighbors not to sabotage us with things like fake hate crimes, we can’t live in a community with them.
It’s like the relationship between next-door neighbors. Because they live near each other, next-door neighbors are part of a relationship which helps define who they are. They trust each other to respect and take care of each other’s property. If one starts throwing poison on the other one’s plants and then denies culpability, the offended neighbor will likely not feel like they are part of a neighborhood community any longer; they might even eventually move away.
But we live in a society where moving away is no longer an option. We’ve been pushed into a small world, where we can either get along or create our own ecosystems, which, as many observers have noted, have come to resemble insular “bubbles.” Unable to compromise, we’ve chosen to draw into ourselves until we can no longer live in a community.
When a society starts to behave like this, people like Bass or the student at University of Michigan’s actions become plausible. They’re not crazy; they’re just protecting their self-contained world against the supposed hatred of the outside. Self-preservation becomes paramount. And if that means getting rid of their neighbors by blaming them for the poison they threw on their own plants, then so be it. In a world of one, the only integrity worth maintaining is autonomy.
The tendency for humans to build self-centered worlds is as old as pride itself. Especially since the Trump election—an unpleasant reality for many Americans—half of the country seems to be terrified of anything that might threaten their personal Xanadus. Cries of “Fake news!” and “Resist!” and “Not my president!” are oddly reassuring to those who make them, of course, giving them a sense of camaraderie and purpose, but they also highlight how displaced from each other we have become.
Dislocating ourselves won’t work in the long run—we’re made to love each other, not ourselves. As this rash of fake hate crimes shows, the more we try to double-down on identity politics and protect ourselves strictly as individuals, the less capable we will be of functioning as a society.
Only when we acknowledge that we live in a community can we escape the self-created islands of insecurity that push us farther away from each other. Hate or no hate, we have to be constantly giving of ourselves to keep our social and political communities healthy.