The Slap Heard Around the World

This week, Will Smith — perhaps the most bankable star of his generation — won an Oscar for Best Actor for “King Richard.” But that wasn’t why he made headlines. He made headlines because during the Academy Awards ceremony, comedian Chris Rock told a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Jada, it seems, suffers from alopecia; Rock, presumably not knowing about her condition, made a joke about her starring in “G.I. Jane 2,” a nod to her closely shaven head. Will Smith was initially amused. He then glanced around to see Jada upset.

He then stood up and strode towards the stage. Rock was being slapped across his face.

He sat down and then he got up again.

Rock tried his best to make the situation a joke. But Will Smith wasn’t letting it go. Instead, he began screaming at Rock: “Keep my wife’s name out ya f—ing mouth!” Rock replied, “Wow, dude, it was a ‘G.I. Jane’ joke.” To which Smith repeated, screaming, “Keep my wife’s name out ya f—ing mouth!” Which, presumably, would make Rock the first man to whom Smith had ever uttered such a sentiment, given the couple’s stated dedication to their open marriage.

It is obvious that it was the most bizarre incident ever televised nationally. The only rivals might have been Justin Timberlake ripping off Janet Jackson’s top to reveal a pasty at the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show, or the live OJ Simpson car chase during the NBA Finals. This event was more bizarre due to the suddenness of it all. Rock was actually hired to light roast actors. Will Smith was present to collect his first Oscar. The whole situation descended into violence.

It’s easy to brush off the event as yet another disposably silly celebrity moment. It would be easier if Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., hadn’t immediately tweeted (and then deleted), “Thank you #WillSmith Shout out to all the husbands who defend their wives living with alopecia in the face of daily ignorance & insults.” Or if Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., hadn’t tweeted, “Teachable Moment: Don’t joke about a Black Woman’s hair.” Or if the entire Academy Awards audience hadn’t given Smith a standing ovation a few moments later. Or if there hadn’t been widespread support for Smith’s slap online, thanks to the now-common belief that verbal insults constitute a form of violence to which violence is an acceptable — indeed, commendable — response.

It is difficult to find a social agreement that allows verbiage and violence to remain separate. For much of humanity’s history, verbal insults were dealt with as punishments. Family retaliation and dueling were commonplaces for many centuries. Wars were even started over verbal offences. Over time civilized humans gave up the right to use force personally in favour of following rules. However, truly offensive words might be met with disapproval, if not violence, then certainly social exclusion or even rejection.

The trend seems to be changing. The entire theory of “microaggressions” suggests that if you are offended, it is because someone has “aggressed” against you — and aggression requires response. To deny someone’s preferred pronouns is now an act of “erasure” amounting to violence, since the person so slighted might feel damaged in their sense of worth or authenticity. The civilization that is unable to reconnect words with violence will soon collapse.

We can hope that Will Smith’s slap remains an aberration; a country in which comedians are regularly assaulted for making jokes will soon be a rather humorless place. If Americans do not reestablish the line between violence and words, then we’ll become far less silent and much more violent.

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