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What the Will Smith Incident Taught Us About Empathy, or the Lack Of

Was the Will Smith incident at the Oscars a missed opportunity to address how society views and deals with pain and hurt, especially that of black men.

Will Smith, Academy Awards, 2022


A lot went wrong at the 94th Academy Awards on March 28th, 2022. Chris Rock made an unfortunate, and most would say unfunny, joke. Without wading into the long debate about what’s acceptable and what’s off limits in comedy; most agree that joking about Jada’s alopecia in her face, on stage at the Oscars, was neither funny nor acceptable. Jada wasn’t laughing. And Will Smith did the unthinkable. He strutted to the stage and slapped Chris Rock. The act was so outrageous, so out of character, so out of place that some in the crowd and at home thought for a moment that it was all staged. After all, this was a gathering of Hollywood’s finest actors. But it became clear the slap was not scripted. And the whole world lost its mind. The slap became the headline, pushing aside for days the horror of Putin’s devastation of Ukraine. The mainstream media outrage was mostly directed at one individual: Will Smith. The man had brought shame to the Oscars, brought violence to the stage of the most prestigious award ceremony, tarnished the ‘pristine’ image of the academy. He deserved to be punished. Some wanted him arrested. Some wanted the Best Actor Oscar he won to be taken away. Some wanted him cancelled completely from Hollywood.


Makes you wonder


Just for context; Hollywood profits from violence. Its films are full of it. Hollywood and the academy are burdened with a track record of accusations of racism and lack of diversity and taking long to deal with predators like Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. And yet the vilification of Will Smith was unlike anything I had ever seen. It got me wondering why? Was it because he supposedly desecrated the Academy on stage, in front of millions? Or was it because he is black? It’s just a question. I am not saying that’s what it is. But the fallout from the incident was, in my opinion, a massive overreaction.


Violence in the workplace


Now, let’s get one thing straight. Violence in the workplace is unacceptable. There is no debate about that. But at the same time, it is not uncommon. Anyone who watches professional sports has seen ice hockey players brawling like UFC fighters, basketball players and footballers throwing punches and having full blown fights. Call that what you may, but it is violence in the workplace. And the punishment is usually an ejection from the game, a red card, and a fine which is usually lunch money for the athletes involved, not worldwide condemnation. Even in Hollywood there has been numerous reports of skirmishes on film sets. People have been killed accidentally. Just a year before this now- infamous Chris and Will brawl, Alec Baldwin shot a female director on a film set with a real gun and she died. All indications suggest the shooting was an accident. But someone died. Clearly there should be accountabilities for mistakes that result in the availability of a loaded gun on a film set. But there wasn’t as much outrage about that incident as there has been about this one. Instead, there was a great deal of empathy. I will come back to this very point later.


The Three Victims


What is sad about this whole incident, besides the unending vilification of Will Smith, is how we have completely ignored the victims in all this. As far as I am concerned, there are three victims here: Chris Rock, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett-Smith. Chris Rock was twice a victim. First, he was a victim of a Hollywood culture that has normalised comedians making fun of celebrities at award ceremonies, no holds barred. If you have watched previous Academy award shows or Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes, you know exactly what I am talking about. Chris made that joke about Jada expecting most people to laugh and a few to flinch, all part of the Hollywood award ritual. Then he was a victim of a physical assault who was completely ignored in the aftermath of the assault. I did not see anyone rush to check if he was ok. Instead, I saw Denzel Washington and Tyler Perry comforting Will Smith. If Chris was a woman who had just been smacked in the face by a six-feet-tall man, would no one rush to check if they were ok? And I couldn’t help but wonder why. Was it because, he is a man, black, a less popular star than Will Smith, considered a perpetrator and therefore deserving of physical punishment? I don’t know but all I know is that it was shameful that no one checked if Chris was ok.


Then we have the second and most aggrieved victim: Jada Pinkett-Smith. Jada did not ask for any of this. She did not want some comedian to joke about alopecia, the medical condition that has led to the loss of her hair and struggles of the trauma that came with it. It’s something she had openly talked about, the trauma of living and coping with the condition. I can only imagine how it must have felt for someone to joke about it. Then there was her husband, Will, doing what some man do best – speak for women as if women can’t speak for themselves. And worse, he didn’t just speak with his mouth, he used his hands too. I am assuming she was not consulted before that act of pure madness was committed in her name. And even after the event, the fallout was all about Chris and Will, as if she didn’t exist, as if she wasn’t the biggest victim in all that drama.


The third victim was Will Smith himself, especially from the self-righteous media mob that went, and is still going after him in the wake of the unfortunate incident. Will has talked about growing up with violence in his home. But as far as I know, he has not been violent or demonstrated violent behaviour nor been accused of any sort of violence before. So the slap seemed, I think we can all agree, completely out of character for Will. That was not the ‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ Will, the well-spoken and thoughtful speaker we have all grown to love over the years. And yet he was not given the benefit of the doubt. No one thought to check if he was ok. Maybe Denzel and Tyler did. But for the most part it was all blame, blame, blame. He was the villain, the bad guy. He did it on purpose. He is evil. Is he? One would think a man who had such global adulation and well-preserved image deserved the benefit of the doubt, deserved people to ask if he was ok because it was so out of character for him to do such a thing.


The Empathy Void


This brings me back to my point: Empathy. What happened on stage was abominable by any stretch of imagination, it was unacceptable, and no one should condone it. But I completely disagree with the way the media covered the aftermath – vilifying and bashing Will Smith with what seemed to be one goal - to destroy the man’s career and life. Indeed, it appeared, at least to an observer like me, they wanted to completely destroy his life for making a mistake, one mistake. In what world is that acceptable? The man made a mistake. If anything, it was a teachable moment. The grown-up response should have been measured and proportionate. All the victims deserved empathy. And yet they received none because we live in a media world devoid of such empathy. The media, including some corners of social media, have become the unempathetic mob. Commit any transgression and they want your head on a spike. If you insult their perceived sensibilities, you must pay with everything you have; everything you have built must be taken away; and you must be cast out. That is not a kind world or the kind of world I want to live in. It is possible to be balanced, to show empathy without condoning, like I have done in this article.


We should have acknowledged the impropriety of the joke, the wrongness of the physical assault and seek to understand the underlying cultural/societal causes and also the humanity of those who committed those acts. Humans make mistakes and learn from them. This mistake was not a catastrophic one and there was no need to catastrophise it. Will Smith deserved to be reprimanded for his behaviour, but also to be heard for what led him to do such a thing and to get help if he needed help.


Jada deserved to be heard, to tell us how she felt about the joke and her husband’s actions. Chris Rock deserved an opportunity to address the issue of comedy and what’s acceptable and what’s not, and to address how jokes can hurt others. This incident should have never been about all of us and our sensibilities or what’s appropriate and what’s not, but about what offend us and what doesn’t. In a world where extreme violence exists (for example ongoing (at time of writing) wars in Syria, Ukraine, Yemen, on our urban streets that are unsafe for most women, in homes where women and children are killed daily by the men who should protect them) we should exercise proportion when accusing people of violence. And we should show empathy and seek to help people, not vilify and destroy them.


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