Violence is wrong, but let's not cancel Will Smith

A measured analysis on the biggest talking point from the 2022 Oscars

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By now, you will have undoubtedly read numerous hot takes on what happened between Will Smith and Chris Rock at last night’s Oscars. The response to the incident - Smith hitting the comedian on stage after after he insulted his wife - has been feverish. It’s difficult in earnest to sympathise with the white old men who largely make up the Academy, but if there was ever a time to it might be now; they spend years trying to make people interested in the Oscars again and then when it happens, it’s not the way they’d wanted at all.

In case anyone is still unsure of what happened, Chris Rock, who was there to present Best Documentary, made a joke about Jada Pinkett’s Smith lack of hair, a result of alopecia. “Jada, I love you,” he said. “G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it, all right?” Will Smith laughed, then saw the angry expression on his wife’s face. He then marched to the stage, hit the comedian and sat back down, before twice yelling from his chair, “Keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth.”

Let’s start with the obvious: Will Smith should not have hit Chris Rock and the latter shouldn’t have joked about a Black woman’s medical condition in front of millions. It was a particularly questionable joke choice given that Rock produced the acclaimed documentary Good Hair - this is a man who knows the complicated politics and cultural enforced ideas surrounding Black women’s hair. So much is attached to it - femininity, beauty, identity, history and value - all of which Rock is fully aware of. Neither have come off well here.

Women do not need their honour defending by supposedly gallant men

Of course, women do not need their honour defending by supposedly gallant men. We are not damsels in distress in need of rescuing. We know that such macho behaviour is part of the patriarchy, a system that has created stereotypes about how men and women should act in certain situations. The Tarzan-Jane rescuer narrative is deeply entrenched, and one many of us will have engaged with at some point, regardless of how much of a feminist we are.

All of us know that Pinkett Smith could have handled that situation better herself if she had wanted. She might have decided to ignore it, or talk about the issue with Rock privately. Already her choices in responding were limited - if she’d have called him out publicly, she’d have been branded an ‘angry Black woman’. Her husband’s behaviour limited her options even further, which was unjustifiably wrong. He has also, inadvertently, made her painful and intimate condition about him. His consequent apology, made during his tearful acceptance speech after winning Best Actor, featured the much discussed line: “Love makes you do crazy things” - a justification often used by abusive men after they have committed an act of violence. I wonder if Will Smith himself regrets all this as he wakes up today, as he accepts the fact that his terrible behaviour overshadowed one of his greatest career accomplishments.

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There have been some who have responded to Smith’s violence by applauding or laughing about it. There have been others who have, understandably, felt incensed by another incarnation of toxic masculinity. What this case needs - what so many divisive conversations that take place over the internet so desperately need - is nuance and context. We live during a time when we feel visceral responses to everything without having thought it through. We react, we don’t respond. It is understandable that Smith should be angered by an insensitive joke directed at his wife for entertainment? Yes. Could he have expressed himself better? Yes. Could he, just maybe, have repressed his anger and let his wife handle herself in whatever way she saw fit? Yes. But should he be cancelled? No.

Should he be cancelled? No

Will Smith is human and humans make mistakes. He is also a Black man in his fifties who has worked in white-dominated Hollywood for decades where he has had to be nothing short of perfect. He will have had to behave better than any white peer to overcome everyday biases. To quote journalist, broadcaster and diversity advocate Ateh Jewel: “He’s had a lifetime of having to be perfect to be palatable, to be socially acceptable in a country that regularly kills African American men like him everyday. I think he cracked under the pressure of this moment.” Chris Rock’s joke triggered something deep-rooted in him. Sometimes micro-aggressions are death by a thousand cuts. I don’t know a great deal about the experiences of alopecia sufferers, but I don’t imagine it’s an easy ride and seeing someone you love undergo any form of long-standing distress, which Pinkett Smith has been vocal about, is hard. With all these factors combined, on this occasion, Will Smith cracked.

We react, we don’t respond

Chris Rock shouldn’t have said what he did, but violence is always unacceptable. We are so used to polarised thinking and the idea that there is only one possible judgement to be made about a situation, and sometimes that does us a disservice. We need to get over the idea that only bad people do bad things; we are all capable of making the wrong choice when situations are heated. We are both good and bad - in fact, one thing can’t exist without the other. Will Smith made a bad decision, a decision that will have impacted both his wife and himself. Let’s give him the opportunity to learn from it.

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