I know I’m about 48 hours late to the party here. By now the whole Will slapping Chris fiasco at the Oscars is old news and just a shrug on most peoples’ shoulders. Honestly, it was probably just a shrug on most peoples’ shoulders when it happened and that’s a problem. I’ll preface this with the fact that I didn’t watch the Oscars and don’t really care about the Academy Awards at all. Everything I know about what transpired between Chris Rock and Will Smith I have read about second-hand in the news so I only have the basic gist of what happened.
While playing pseudo-Uber driver last week taking my sister to the airport, my daughter noticed the billboards that proclaim, “If you see something, say something,” in an effort to communicate that it’s up to each of us to stand up and say something when we notice suspicious happenings. I don’t know that what transpired at the Oscars Sunday evening qualifies as suspicious but something does need to be said about it—and something more than “violence of any kind is not tolerated.” Both Chris and Will were in the right and in the wrong; here’s why and what we can learn from it.
Everyone is dogging on Will right now but let’s back up to Chris for just a minute since his remarks started it.
What Chris Did Wrong: He made a very personal derogatory joke about someone he clearly does not know well enough to determine how he/she would feel about it and/or did not vet the comments with him/her beforehand.
Why This Was Wrong: That I even need to try to explain why this was wrong is concerning. How do you feel when others make fun of you? We teach kids the rhyme, ”Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” The reality is though that words do far more damage than sticks and stones ever do. Words, once spoken or written, cannot be taken back no matter how many “I’m sorry”s we utter. And the irony is that we teach kids that rhyme at the same time we are teaching them not to call each other names. Now, before you go thinking I’m someone with no sense of humor or “can’t take a joke” let me tell you, I have a serious problem remaining on my feet. Coordination is not my strong suit. I have landed on my face just walking down the street. I make fun of myself for it. My family and friends make fun of me for it. And I’m okay with that. I’d even be okay with someone I don’t really know making fun of me from a stage in front of an international audience for it. On the other hand, I also have a mild-to-moderate hearing loss that oddly enough includes frequencies that are in the range my husband’s voice lands in. (I’m not making this up. I have audiogram results to prove it.) I have to ask him to repeat himself a lot. When he makes fun of me for it, I’m not nearly as willing to roll with it as I am with jokes about my face plants. I don’t know why. Neither of these issues is within my control but one is comedy fodder and the other is a sore spot. If you are going to go comedy with someone else’s issues, you need to know what’s fair game and what isn’t. If you don’t know, don’t say it. And this is what is really so disturbing about the whole incident. If Will had done nothing, no one would have thought there was anything wrong with Chris’ remarks.
What Chris Did Right: He did not escalate the situation by striking back or pressing charges; he just kept moving and, as far as I can tell, hasn’t made many, if any, public comments about it. Not that there aren’t times where striking back or pressing charges would be appropriate but it seems like Chris saw it for what it was, a spur of the moment reaction that wasn’t really about him.
Now for Will.
What Will Did Wrong: Do I even need to go here?
Why This Was Wrong: See ‘What Will did wrong’ above. But let’s give Will a bit of a break too. Have you ever had someone make fun of someone you love—your spouse, your child, your siblings? His actions were wrong but understandable when you put yourself in his shoes.
What Will Did Right: He stood up for his wife. That doesn’t make the physical violence of it right. There were better ways he could have stood up for Jada. I’m also going to include Will’s apology here with qualifications. First, Will’s apology to Chris should have been done in private between the two of them. It may have been but, if it was only a public apology in a very well crafted statement, it is concerning. And the other qualification is that Will is an actor with a career to think about. He works in an industry that will blacklist people if they don’t have the “correct” political affiliations and is very built on networking with the right people and having the right image. It is conceivable to think that Will could never work in Hollywood again because of this incident. Therefore, it is also reasonable to suspect that his apology was borne more out of the threat of that potential reality than genuine sorrow and repentance. Let me be clear, I have no reason to believe he is not genuinely sorry. I don’t know the guy. But with celebrity comes a cut-throat world of agents and publicists and public image and persona that can lead to a lot of apologies where the only thing that people are really sorry for is being caught.
What is the actual bottom line here? Both Will and Chris are only human. Our culture elevates people with public faces—politicians, actors, comedians, musicians, religious leaders, and the like—to a higher standard, and not just a higher standard but a standard of perfection. The problem with this is people are not perfect and when we expect them to be they will always disappoint. Were Chris’ remarks wrong? Yes, since he obviously didn’t vet them with those who they were most likely to impact. But which of us hasn’t said something stupid and insensitive to others? Were Will’s actions wrong? Yes. But which of us hasn’t done something stupid in the heat of the moment? Understand me, I am not advocating we just look the other way when others make mistakes as if it is no big deal. But, we also need to extend the grace and mercy we seem to expect be extended to us when we screw up, particularly when we don’t actually know the people and are in no position to counsel them on their behavior. That’s a role for close friends and family, not the viewing public.