It would be difficult to be unaware of what occurred at the Academy Awards this past Sunday.
Fewer and fewer people now watch this award show with each passing year. However, the magic of the internet and social media has ensured that even those who have no interest in Hollywood’s annual festival of self-congratulation have seen the actor Will Smith stride purposefully onto the stage and give comedian Chris Rock a resounding and surprising slap right across the face. Stunned silence followed.
Chris Rock’s unscripted and unfunny on-camera joke at the expense of Mr. Smith’s wife regarding a health condition from which she suffers was the cause of the slap. The health condition in question, while not deadly, could certainly be a cause of embarrassment or discomfort, and Mr. Smith evidently saw it as his husbandly duty to punish Mr. Rock for upsetting her. This episode was followed by some angry and obscene comments directed at Mr. Rock, who was obviously trying to downplay the episode, which resulted in Mr. Smith finally silencing the stammering excuses for the original insults.
This deliberately dispassionate attempt on my part to describe what was a rather dramatic and unexpected series of events is meant to lay the groundwork for my analysis of both the slap—and the many peculiar reactions to it.
There was a time in the not-too-distant past when this incident would have been immediately recognizable as a husband leaping to his wife’s defense when a cruel and thoughtless remark was directed at her. However, we live in a different age where every aspect of our lives now has to pass through evaluations based on race, gender, and sexuality that tend to reveal more about the analysts than the protagonists themselves.
I suppose we should be thankful that both Mr. Smith and Mr. Rock are Black men who are apparently heterosexual. Had these variables been different, the episode would have veered irretrievably into Woke parsing that would have overtaken reality.
Had Mr. Smith been White, we would have been treated to an exposition on how the legacy of slavery and oppression is playing out today insofar as a White man feels it is appropriate to strike an “uppity” Black man for showing insufficient respect. Had Mr. Rock been White, the blogosphere and liberal media would explain that Mr. Smith had been triggered to strike by the cruel White Privilege that allowed the dishonor of a successful Black woman. If either one of these men had previously self-identified as gay, we’d be discussing gay bashing or a heroic gay man fighting for his dignity—although if Mr. Smith was the gay one, his wife might have some questions.
As it is, there are already enough subtextual analyses wafting through the air to confuse us all.
Some suggest that Mr. Smith is a hero for standing up for a Black women—never mind she’s his wife—in the face of the disrespect historically accorded to women of color. Others are condemning Mr. Smith for reinforcing stereotypes of violent Black men and engaging in the most visible possible form of so-called “toxic masculinity”. Some are critical of the sexist supposition that Mr. Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, is incapable of standing up for herself due to her gender, although we would be discussing a whole new web of circuitous Woke intersectionality were it to have been her who struck the blow instead of her husband.
Oddly, perhaps because we have for so long wallowed in cultural norms that find lewd, crude, and thoughtless remarks to be screamingly funny, few seem willing to suggest that Mr. Rock showed a startling lack of sensitivity—not to mention basic human decency—by broadcasting to a worldwide audience a joke about someone’s health condition.
Somehow alopecia, which has affected Ms. Pinkett Smith’s hair growth so severely that she has been compelled to shave her head, is still a source of humor. Apparently we are past the point where we might laugh at someone who walks with limp, has a speech impediment, or is noticeably short or overweight, but severe hair loss in a women, which can be the source of acute personal distress, is fair game for a comedian.
Ha-ha. Bald woman. Big laughs.
This speaks to a deficiency in our public manners and private morals that manifests itself in a million different way every day, and it does not reflect well on our nation and ideas of entertainment.
However, another consideration is worthy of comment here. Perhaps Mr. Smith’s dramatic and unexpected refusal to be a party to his wife’s public humiliation is a necessary antidote to the cruelty and callousness that now passes for humor or commentary in America.
The idea that Mr. Smith and his wife were legitimate targets for insult and derision because they are public figures, which in America today apparently means you deserve to have a target painted on your back, is perhaps the most damaging aspect of the sick and sadistic form of discourse now in vogue.
Think of how many decent and competent Americans are today leaving or refusing public service because they prefer to avoid being flamed on Facebook, torched on Twitter, or subjected to daily abuse simply because they are attempting to do their jobs.
Teachers are fleeing the profession en masse, and colleges report that enrollments in teacher training programs are crashing. More and more towns and cities are finding it difficult to recruit police officers to replace the experienced law enforcement professionals who are sick of being abused by the very public they are sworn to serve. Most anyone with a lick of good sense has to think carefully about a run for elective office, wondering whether it is wise to subject themselves and their families to the caustic scrutiny of political partisans and social justice warriors who pay little heed to the damage their words inflict on lives and careers.
None of this is funny, and the erosion of respect and restraint in our nation is rapidly progressing from the horrendous to the irreversible.
Although Mr. Smith decided to apologize to Mr. Rock the next day for reasons of his own, there is no doubt that his affirmative and unambiguous slap sent a profound shiver through the legions of political mudslingers, social media snarksters, and American smart alecks everywhere, who all count on impunity from consequences when they are making derogatory, nasty, and cruel comments about the beliefs, lives, and values of others.
It is no surprise that the class of comedian-commentators (or should that be commentator-comedians?) who now dominate our nation’s media and journalistic landscapes have vigorously and vociferously jumped to Mr. Rock’s defense. Their livelihoods are threatened by Mr. Smith’s adamant refusal to willingly play the fool.
It has been true since the dawn of time that the mouthier and more insulting a person is, the more of a coward they typically are. Our daily discourse is now dominated by the adult equivalent of the class clowns, and they have heretofore maintained their stranglehold on our national discussions because they have been able to count on not being beat up at recess. Were this to change, a profound and welcome silence would descend across our nation, and many celebrities, semi-celebrities, and self-declared savants would suddenly have to find other ways to occupy their days.
If society’s gleeful tormentors now have to worry about being slapped with a lawsuit—or slapped across the face—their reign of terror and error will come to an abrupt and ignominious end. Frankly, we would all be better off if it became our habit to sneer at or simply ignore the overgrown adolescents who get a cheap thrill from mocking others in order to compensate for their own miserable lives, and it would be a relief to no longer have to “grin and bear it” from these enablers of antagonism, who seem to revel in dragging our nation’s dignity through the mud to either make money or win worthless attention.
The ability to post on Twitter is no substitute for content knowledge, thoughtful analysis, or a commitment to respectfully evaluate the ideas of others. We owe it to ourselves to no longer tolerate those smug souls who assume their supposedly enlightened beliefs entitle them to act like jerks.
A nation of respectful behavior and arguments based on facts and logic? This sounds like a paradise, doesn’t it?