Last week, Javier Bardem offered a vigorous defense of filmmaker Woody Allen, who remains embattled by accusations that he sexually abused his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow. “If [Allen’s] legal situation ever changes, then I’d change my mind,” Bardem said. “But for now I don’t agree with the public lynching that he’s been receiving.”
A public lynching? Wow.
And Bardem is not alone. Many powerful men who have been accused of sexual misconduct have played the “lynch card” to deflect attention from their actions. In September, after Bill Cosby’s conviction for sexual assault, spokesman Andrew Wyatt complained that the trial, which led to a three-year prison sentence, “became a lynching.” R. Kelly’s team referred to the #MuteRKelly campaign as an “attempted public lynching of a Black man.”
More recently, several right-wing observers used to the term “lynching” to describe the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. Of course, Kavanaugh, and likely others, were taking a cue from Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who referred to his own confirmation hearing as a “high-tech lynching.”
Each of these men has adopted an increasingly common practice of invoking lynching as a framework for their public travails. In doing so, they misrepresent history and obscure the harm caused by their alleged behavior.
“Real lynching was not an inconvenience or a public embarrassment like being dragged on Twitter. Real Black men and women were hanged, beaten, dragged through streets or burned alive.”
In the 19th and 20th centuries, lynching was not an idea, an inconvenience or a public embarrassment like being dragged on Twitter. Black men (and women!) were hanged. They also were beaten, dragged, tarred and feathered, castrated, burned alive, shot or otherwise executed.
When used by powerful and privileged men like Kavenaugh, Thomas and R. Kelly, lynching no longer speaks to death or even bodily danger. Instead, lynching becomes nothing more than a cheap metaphor for their lack of unfettered access to power.
It’s worth noting that almost every recent public use of the term “lynching” has been in relation to allegations of sexual misconduct. By using the lynching trope in these contexts exclusively, these men reinforce the false narrative that accusations of sexual assault were the primary reason that Black people were lynched.
By drawing on a history of falsely accused Black lynching victims, these men are trying (and in some cases succeeding) to encourage the public to ignore legitimate sexual assault claims and gain sympathy for themselves.
Contrary to popular belief, lynching doesn’t only refer to the practice of hanging people from trees. Rather, it refers to the longstanding American tradition of extrajudicial killing by mob. In other words, lynchings happened when the general (read: white) public operated as judge, jury and executioner in deciding the fate of the victim.
“By invoking lynching, these men are trying to encourage the public to ignore legitimate sexual assault claims and gain sympathy for themselves.”
In the instances of men like Kelly and Cosby, their ordeals were anything but extrajudicial. On the contrary, each was given public, transparent and largely favorable court proceedings. This is not to ignore the particular ways that the criminal justice system reinforces white supremacy, or the ways that Black men are disproportionately charged, prosecuted and convicted. Still, their experiences were hardly extrajudicial.
Some will argue that the experiences of men like Kelly and Cosby may have been technically judicial, but that they were unfairly tried in the court of public opinion. This claim, however, is far-fetched. Despite countless allegations and considerable evidence, many people decided to defend and support the two before, during and after their alleged actions became part of the public conversation.
If anything mirrored extrajudicial injustice, it would be the treatment of their alleged victims, many of whom were dismissed, derided and attacked for telling their stories. After all, if these men are being lynched, then those who are accusing them of sexual assault are inevitably framed as the lynch mob. As Salamishah Tillet argues, this framing is particularly egregious when the accusers (like in the case of Thomas and Cosby) are Black women, whose experiences with sexual violence are often ignored or dismissed.
The use of the lynching metaphor becomes even more disturbing when used by white men like Woody Allen and Brett Kavanaugh. Of course, there were white people lynched during the high period from 1882 to 1968. But lynching is a quintessentially Black experience. When privileged white men appropriate this experience, they merely double down on their disturbing behaviors.
Public figures have a right to defend themselves from societal and legal challenges. But using the language of “lynching” weakens that defense and disrespects those who were truly susceptible to or victims of actual lynching.
It’s a cynical and opportunistic rewriting of history that invokes legitimate sympathies and fears at the expense of justice and transparency.
Just don’t do it.
Marc Lamont Hill is the Steve Charles Professor of Media, Cities, and Solutions at Temple University, a CNN political commentator and a former host of HuffPost Live.