When I was a stupid teenager, my family was out at a restaurant and my father said something that I thought was ridiculous. For some reason I thought it would then be funny to walk up to him and smack him on the back of the head.
It did not end well.
Even now as I write these words, I am burning with shame over the memory. I share this story at the outset because it is important to know that what follows is not a judgment of the persons involved. I am in no position to judge. But it is an analysis of the actions and the behavior surrounding what happened.
As is my tradition, I sat up to watch the interminable long Oscar telecast this past Sunday. And as most people are aware, Chris Rock was presenting an award when he made a joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith's short hair. Then her husband Will Smith strode up to the stage and slapped Rock hard across the face.
Everyone and their brother have been sharing their reactions to this online. Since this blog deals with what is in the pop culture, I thought that I should take a few moments to share my thoughts. Feel free to disagree and debate with any of the points.
My reaction to what I saw was visceral. Even though I don't know any of the people involved personally, I developed a knot in my stomach that lasted the rest of the night. I remember once after school let out, a buddy of mine and I drove down to the mall. While walking around, two men at a watch kiosk got into a fight, with the other two employees trying to pull them apart. I had never seen a fight in real life and I was hit with shock. My feet felt like they were cemented to the ground. My friend and I each went to find some security guards, but we talked later about how unnerving that moment was. In the same way, I felt unnerved by Smith attacking Rock.
Let's start with the joke. Rock said to Pinkett-Smith, "Jada, I love you. GI Jane 2, can't wait to see you." Pinkett-Smith suffers from alopecia, which causes hair loss. As a result, she decided to cut her hair very short.
Some people do not think the joke was offensive. If I was Smith, I would have not found it funny. My wife has suffered from arthritis since she was a little child. If someone mocked her publicly for the way she walks due the damage to her joints, I would be incensed. But my own anger does not dictate the rightness of my actions. Apparently, Rock did not know about Pinkett-Smith's health issue and thought instead that she had made a fashion choice.
At this point, it should be noted that part of the job of a comedian at these events is to poke fun at the celebrities. Most of the time it is light-hearted, though it can get personal. Earlier in the night, one of the hosts made a joke about the Smiths and their open marriage. Apparently it is common knowledge that Pinkett-Smith has affairs with younger men while still being married to Smith. Sometimes these jokes can be very biting, as when Ricky Gervais last hosted the Golden Globes.
There is actually a reason for this. In the courts of kings, the jester was the only one who was allowed to mock the king without consequence. There was something important about making fun of those who are in power. It deflates some of that unavoidable ego that comes with the status. It is healthy to be roasted from time to time. I am blessed with many friends who know just the right buttons to push on me when I begin to act too arrogantly or annoyingly. They help keep me in check. The jester does the same thing. It is very healthy for the rich and powerful to be able to laugh at themselves.
Can the jester go too far? Absolutely. But the consequence should be in the form of the audience's response. It is incredibly disturbing to see someone physically assaulted over a joke. It is also shocking to me how many people have defended Smith's actions. I'm not shocked that people sympathize with Smith's anger. As I mentioned above, I would be livid in his shoes. But I have trouble understanding those who are justifying his attack. Some have said he was responding to the joke.
But jokes are not violence.
Jokes may hurt our feelings and jokes can be hateful and inappropriate. But they are jokes. Speech, unless it is directly calling for the physical harm of others, is not violence.
There were so many other ways for Smith to handle the situation. Imagine any one of these scenarios:
-camera cuts to Smith who does not laugh.
-Smith gets up and walks out of the hall in protest.
-Smith walks up to Rock, gets the microphone and tells his wife on national TV how beautiful she is and how beautiful all women with alopecia are.
In any of the above scenarios, Smith maintains the moral high ground and the debate would center around whether or not Rock should have told the joke. Instead, Smith has ceded all of the moral authority with his violent outburst.
Sometimes people use the phrase "chilling effect" to describe how an action could lead people responding in fear. Perhaps it is over-used, but I can completely see Smith's actions having a chilling effect to comedians. With Smith being lionized by some, this would embolden others to physically assault comedians who say something "offensive." The fear of offending the powerful and wealthy can only lead to a continued erosion of our society.
If you don't think Smith was lionized, notice how he received a standing ovation when he won his award. I am curious if anyone present had the moral courage to withhold their accolades for a man who assaulted their colleague Chris Rock. This happened on a night when wealthy celebrities like to preach and lecture to the world about how we are to live and behave. But when the time came to demonstrate some bravery in the face of violence, who held their ground? And I cannot help but think that Smith's sense of entitlement and status emboldened him to physically attack a man in full view of hundreds of witnesses and on international television.
During Smith's interminable acceptance speech, he apologized to the academy and the audience, but not to the man he hit. He began by comparing himself to the man he portrayed in his movie King Richard, by saying he was a fierce defender of his family. Even in that moment, he was justifying his violent outburst. He mentioned that Denzell Washington told him that when you are at your highest, that's when the Devil comes for you. This is true. But you can avoid the Devil's trap with humble penitence. Smith could have earned a great deal of good will in that moment by apologizing to Rock and stating how he didn't deserve the award after that shameful display. One of the manliest moments I've seen in movies is in the film Lean on Me. Morgan Freeman played Principal Joe Clark who put chains on the doors of his school in order to keep drug dealers out. This was in violation of the fire code, so they arrested him. When his students saw this, Clark did not cry out about injustice. He said, "I chained the doors. You break the law, you go to jail." Even though he did it for a good reason, Clark took responsibility like a man.
Smith did not.
To be fair, this is an ongoing story and many things could change. Just this morning I saw that Smith posted an apology to Rock written on Instagram. The text was humble and contrite. If I am being charitable, I should say that if Rock accepts the apology, then the affair is settled. If I am being cynical, I would say that Smith's publicists wrote the apology and are doing damage control. Within moments of the slap, I said to my wife, "Will Smith just killed his career." Who would want to work with him now, knowing that an off-color joke could trigger him to violence. If this is how he behaves in front of the whole world, imagine how he would behave with no one watching?
Based on Smith's jubilant partying after the awards, I have difficulty believing that he is truly penitent. But that is between him and God and Chris Rock.
Speaking of Rock, I am truly impressed with his poise and grace under pressure. I am a wimp. If I got decked the way he was, I'd probably start crying in front of the whole world. Instead, he did everything in his power to defuse the tension. He even said, "That was the greatest moment in the history of television."
I do not know where this story will lead. I hope there is a growing chorus of condemnation for Smith's actions. I don't mean to call out the cancel mobs on him. I believe in second chances and in redemption.
But when "King Richard" attacks the jester, it opens the door to more violence.
If we do not strongly condemn what happened, then we are saying that we no longer speak with our words, but with our fists.