Even though I did not watch the Academy Awards last night, there is one moment from the broadcast that nearly everyone knows who pays attention to meme culture is familiar with, and that is the moment when Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair loss leading to her future casting in G.I. Jane 2, then Will Smith laughing about the joke at first, and then seeing his wife’s response, getting up, slapping Chris Rock upside the head, and then telling the comedian to get his wife’s name out of his mouth. While the incident could have led to criminal charges–Chris Rock declined to press charges–and it has attracted a great deal of ridicule for Will Smith, it is an instructive moment as it helps to reveal the sorts of incidents where we might expect violence predictably to occur.
One of the insights I gained from my childhood was that bullies were fundamentally insecure people. Those people who lash out in anger and violence towards others do not do so because they are strong, but precisely because they are weak. This insight is not always as helpful as one might hope. It is one thing to know that the people who try to abuse such power and strength as they possess do so because of weakness and insecurity, but it leads to a host of other issues that one has to deal with. First, we may not know people are or feel insecure until after they lash out against us, at which point it may be too late to do very much damage control because the violence has already been released, thus furthering bad blood that may continue for a long time. If we assume that others are strong and they are merely projecting a strength that they do not feel, then we can run into problems when we test the strength of others and they feel that they are honor-bound to challenge us as a result of that, similar to what happened last night.
Alternatively, we may know that others are weak or insecure but may not be able to resist tweaking them and mocking them. I must admit this is sometimes the case with me. I have not always been charitable when it comes to avoiding teasing other people about areas where they are insecure. While I do not consider this particular love of witty jokes and occasional teasing to be malicious in nature, other people may not necessarily be as charitable towards these tendencies as I am, and they may respond in kind, as is sometimes the case. To the extent that we know we are poking fun of someone who has a weakness that is laid bare to us, we have to be aware that there may be consequences for this. When we poke fun of powerful but insecure people, we can expect that there will be some kind of blowback and that those people will use their power to try to crush us because we have made them look as weak as they feel or as they think they are–and Will Smith and Vladimir Putin’s Russia appear to be similar in that regard as being prone to violence when their weakness is made evident.
We might ask how we know Will Smith to be weak, and the answer to that is that if we are aware of celebrity gossip, then the last few years have not been kind to Will Smith with regards to his public reputation. In particular, there was a rather awkward public discussion where Will Smith’s wife discussed an affair she had with a younger man as an entanglement that exposed Will Smith in a particular brutal way. It is not a coincidence that Chris Rock made fun of Jada Pinkett Smith, as a point of vulnerability for Will Smith, and that her lack of good humor about it forced Will Smith, in his eyes at least, to respond as a defender of his wife’s honor. This is all the more awkward considering that his wife has threatened her honor more than any tacky joke about hair loss could do, an avenue of jokes that Chris Rock refrained from making but that other memelords have not been so kind regarding in the incident’s aftermath.
Again, though, it bears repeating that Will Smith’s violence against Chris Rock was because of his weakness and not because of his strength. A stronger man in a stronger situation would have been able to keep laughing. Maybe he would have gently reminded Chris Rock that it’s not polite to make fun of others, or maybe he would have reminded his wife that she shaved her head, and so she must be prepared for the sorts of comments that are going to inevitably come from that decision. Or he could have just chosen to laugh and let others deal with their own thin skin, but Will Smith was, however you look at it, not in that secure of a position himself. His wife already looks to others besides him for intimacy, a fact which Will Smith is painfully aware of and knows that many others are also aware of. I feel for the man, but violence is not the answer.