I wasn’t eager to discuss the Will Smith Chris Rock altercation because of all of the media attention it has received during a time when there are far more important issues facing us – Ukraine, Pandemic, inflation, etc. In addition, there is a fine line between disapproval and understanding and any attempt to explain Smith’s behavior might be wrongly interpreted as an excuse.
Let me be clear, Smith’s behavior was wrong. Resorting to violence as a response to anger is not the best of masculinity. Furthermore, his behavior was public and disrupted an event that was of importance to many of the participants and to the audience at large. Subsequently, after all of the negative press, Smith has apologized and has resigned from the Academy. Further consequences are coming and there is speculation that the Will Smith brand has been seriously tarnished.
Got it. He made a serious error in judgment. But why? I think there is a teachable moment about masculinity that can be explored. Protection is an important component of masculinity and when expressed appropriately we admire men for this trait. My sense is that Smith on a gut level experienced Rock’s comments as an attack on his wife. There is a context for this since Rock has made negative comments about Jada Pinkett-Smith on previous occasions. Some have written that she didn’t need his protection since she is an intelligent capable woman. True, but that misses the point that a man will, on a visceral level, attempt to protect his wife no matter how capable she is. In fact a recent poll quoted on a news show indicated that 56% of women felt that Rock was more wrong than Smith.
I do not believe that Chris Rock acted any better than Will Smith in the context of the best of masculinity. He used his position of power as a presenter and a comedian to deliberately disrespect Jada with full knowledge that this was a sensitive subject for her and her husband. He essentially baited Will to act. Interestingly, Smith did not punch Rock but chose to slap him instead. I find this a significant choice that expresses a sentiment beyond just blind violence. Rock essentially challenged Smith’s manhood and Smith responded with a “bitch slap” – which the Urban Dictionary defines as, “to open handedley slap someone. Denotes disrespect for the person being bitch slapped as they are not worthy of a man sized punch.” There remains no question that Will Smith could have made a better choice. If he confronted Chris Rock privately and let him know how he felt about he and his wife being disrespected that would have been the most rational choice. However, we know that when anger boils up we often to not make rational choices. This is especially true when a man’s protective instinct is challenged. The fact that Smith slapped Rock instead of punching him demonstrates that on some level a choice was made to disrespect Rock not physically harm him. Therefore, when all is said I choose to give Will somewhat of a pass and acknowledge that although flawed he acted like a real man.