Will Smith slapping Chris Rock was wrong, but that’s not the end of the story

“That was the greatest night in the history of television,” Chris Rock said. And surely in that moment, the Oscars got a lot more interesting, didn’t they? As everyone knows, Chris Rock made a joke that mocked Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia. Her husband Will Smith took umbrage with the joke, stormed the stage, and slapped Chris Rock. Will Smith would go on to win Best Actor for his role in King Richard, and during his acceptance speech he’d offer an apology. The day after, Will Smith apologized on his Instagram page as well, naming himself a work in progress. Chris Rock has yet to apologize.

I have to admit as tantalizing as the moment is, I’m not particularly enamored with celebrity or Hollywood drama. But I do think this particular incident tells us something about our morals, our perspectives, our ability to listen to one another. The altercation gives us an opportunity to check our moralism, and view things with a little more nuance, too.

Will Smith was right to say that violence is poisonous and destructive in all of its forms. But his own humility here doesn’t suggest that he was the only one in the wrong. In fact, Smith notes that a joke about Jada’s medical condition is inappropriate. If Smith is right that violence in all of its forms is wrong then Chris Rock also chose violence when he made his ableist joke. The joke was in poor taste and demonstrative that some comedians just can’t seem to grow up.

Rock has apparently had run-ins with the Smiths in the past, and because of the nature of his work, his insults can be seen as passable. But yes, there are lines even comedians should not cross, and Rock learned it very clearly when he did. When Smith shouted at him to keep his wife’s name out of his mouth – Rock said he was going to. I suppose a clear message was sent.

I sympathize and empathize with Smith’s reaction. The feelings that arise in us when our loved one, when our families, are besmirched can be overwhelming. Our need to defend them and protect them emerges. So grace abounds for Smith and his response, at least from me. Evidently, Smith has regret for not defending his mother from his abusive father, so I am sure that compounded his violent reaction here. Sometimes when we feel helpless, violence is our last resort.

But my empathy for Smith doesn’t mean I condone his violent response, especially as a Christian. But what I want to inform my understanding isn’t my moral against violence, but rather the experience of those affected the most by it. In this particular incident, Jada Pinkett Smith is the most affected, so we do well to submit ourselves to listening to disabled folks, women, and BIPOC folks (and if you can listen to a disabled, BIPOC woman, even better). There are layers to this conflict that help us understand why we might conclude that Smith’s violence was wrong, without beginning with a simplistic moral.

Stephen A. Smith said Will Smith’s actions had no excuse and were “straight bullshit,” arguing that Smith stained the Oscars themselves, which were produced by Will Packer, another Black man. To Smith that sort of horizontal hostility is enough to condemn Smith’s actions. Another friend pointed me toward Jenkins & Jonez’s (very vulgar) take, which suggested that the slap was a minor incident and the insult and disrespect to Jada Pinkett Smit deserved even more aggression (though the hosts admitted they were guilty of some toxic masculinity here). Both views are interesting to me, but the ones that justify the violence – instead of sympathizing with it, strike me as incomplete. The male urge to use violence to protect our loved ones furthers abusive behavior and toxic masculinity. Violence is still the worst way to defend ourselves and our loved ones, even if feels like the most natural way.

My friend Dani sides with Jada Pinkett Smith, while not condoning the slap, wanted to point out that Jada experienced violence and is owed an apology, at the very least. A world where the disabled are ignored is not one without violence. It is violent to ignore them.

Chris Rock’s joke was completely inappropriate and hateful, in fact. It is worth condemnation, and a more precise critique would have landed better than Smith’s ham-fisted approach. Violence is imprecise and muddies the water. Even if we emotionally understand why some people act that way, the apparent evil of the violent action is clear. Similarly, the apparent evil of Rock’s joke is also clear. When we speak to our kids about this, we know to tell them not to resort to violence or name-calling. It’s plain as day. We don’t need to let different rules apply to celebrities worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The basic ethics here are simple, even if the circumstances that led to violating them are not simplistic. We can hold the incident with some nuance.

Jesus makes it clear that nonviolence is his way. In fact, he tells us to turn the other cheek. Rock’s lack of violent response is actually laudable. I hope he apologizes soon. But Jesus’ call to nonviolence should never be weaponized in a way that doesn’t allow us to understand what motivates acts of passion. Not all violent acts are worth our empathy, but sometimes they are, and when we are too principled about our morals, we lose the opportunity to be nuanced and empathetic. It’s easy to say Will Smith was wrong, but there’s more to the story. His wrongdoing shouldn’t preclude us from understanding the motivation and reasoning behind it. May grace abound for the people who feel the weight of oppression the most, and may we seek to understand why some people want to use violence to protect them. From that position, we can begin to move people in a new way.

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