In the past 36 hours I've read and heard so much (and so bad) commentary about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars on live TV that in the spirit of public service I'm putting out this emergency FAQ for you dear readers to get up to speed on the facts and understand what really happened.
Is that incident important, relevant or consequential in any way?
Should we be talking about it?
Not at all.
Why this post, then?
Precisely because so many people seem to have paid so much attention. To diffuse the stupid “controversies” around it, and to encourage you to spot similar fake scandals in the future and stop caring about them.
What happened, in a nutshell?
A person slapped another person.
Wait. It was at the Oscars. Millions of viewers. Outsized cultural influence. Surely that makes it somewhat relevant?
The Oscars are a cheesy US-centric infomercial made by rich people to advertise themselves, promoting conformity, conservatism, shallowness and inauthenticity — and the awards they give away are but a pretence of quality or artistic merit. We should not care about the Oscars in the first place. Even if the incident was not scripted, nothing that happens at the Oscars is remotely representative of anything, and we can't trust what anyone involved says.
Was it staged? A stunt? A practical joke?
That is possible. But there are already strong signs that the whole thing was spontaneous.
Who is to blame for what happened?
Doesn't Chris Rock share at least a little bit of the responsibility for mocking the physical appearance of Smith's wife (who suffers from alopecia) in such a distasteful way in front of millions of people?
No. Chris Rock is the victim here.
How can you be so sure? Can't you see the nuance?
- Was anyone violent? Then, that's “the issue”.
Criticise that unambiguously. Focus on that. Put that on the headlines. The victim is whoever was attacked.
- Did anyone issue credible threats of violence? If so, proceed as above, with the focus on those threats and on the person or people threatening.
- Most likely, there's nothing to feel all righteous and offended about.
There is violence, and then there is everything else. When someone is violent, everything else is secondary.
Truly offensive or hateful words are a kind of violence.
No, they are not.
Not all forms of violence are physical.
“Physical violence” is a tautology. Violence is physical, by definition. Anything else may be distressing, alarming, even offensive — but not violent.
Is there no recourse for someone who feels humiliated in public, then?
Sure there is. Counterblast. Humour. Indifference. Giving up popularity and riches, moving out of LA and opting for an invisible job in some less glamorous industry. Libel laws.
Isn't all this about misogyny, really? Men fighting for women (and honour), treating women as property…
That's a funny hypothesis to entertain when (let me remind you) what happened here is that a man was physically attacked. If you really have to shoehorn gender in here, you should be focusing on violence against men. In any case, how would that theory be falsifiable? If men being violent towards other men is a sign of misogyny, would men being violent against women be a sign of misandry?
No, that's stupid. And (let me remind you) men are violent against women.
Yes, men are more violent than women, in general. But as someone said on Twitter, imagine it had been Amy Schumer (one of the female hosts of the event) instead making the joke about Will Smith's bald wife. Do you think Smith would have smacked Amy Schumer? We can't know for sure, but I feel very strongly that he would not have dared to touch a woman who made the exact same joke. Again, the Sexist Hypothesis is impossible to falsify: if Will Smith attacked a female comedian some (most) would say it's because he's a male chauvinist, and if he spared a female comedian the slap (ie, the exact same aggression that he committed on a man) some would see male chauvinism and paternalism in it too.
Isn't this about men lacking a sense of humour and having thin skins?
There's an instant in the whole incident that is very telling: the moment when both Will Smith and his wife react to Chris Rock, the second right after they hear the joke. We see clearly that Will Smith laughs (awkwardly), while she looks very serious and rolls her eyes. Not surprising: the joke is about her appearance, and so perhaps it's more annoying to her. What happened immediately after, we cannot see; but it was very important (and quick), for only a few seconds later Will Smith is already walking up the stage. We get the impression that somehow she transmitted her indignation to him. It's difficult to understand otherwise how he gets from laughing to slapping. Again: the only one to blame here is Will Smith. I'm just saying that he seemed to laugh it off, at least for a moment.
Wasn't it a display of toxic masculinity, and isn't that what got people outraged?
How can you be so sure?
OK, I'm not. If your Masculin-o-Meter® is so sensitive that you can tell “normal” masculinity from “toxic” masculinity by looking at this clip of a few seconds, I congratulate you. I'm impressed that you can blame masculinity (or “the patriarchy”) for this — instead of the stupidity of one person, regardless of their gender, age, height or fluency in Cantonese (which in principle looks like the simplest and most likely explanation). Apparently, you can detect, and are willing to highlight, every departure from regular, unqualified masculinity. Well, I'm sceptical. There's such a huge bias against masculinity (plain masculinity) that it gets criticised way more often than praised. Tell me: when was the last time you heard or read about “noble” masculinity, or “selfless” masculinity?
How on Earth is that relevant? Of course there are positive ways to be masculine. Shouldn't we denounce toxic masculinity whenever it manifests itself?
Only if we at least try to be consistent with, and fair to, all displays of “masculinity”. This problem is easy to see if we swap “men” and “masculinity” for other demographics, organisations or ideologies. Take “Muslims”, “the Polish”, “lawyers”, or “East Asians”: paying attention only to cases where a member of those groups did something condemnable would paint a very skewed picture of the group as a whole. Of course anyone is in their right to choose to focus on any subset of issues, positive or negative, associated with any group of people, and to use their platform (big or small) to move public sentiment in that direction — and to ignore or downplay the opposite issues and all counterexamples. But doing so contributes to distorting our perception of reality, and we wouldn't be surprised if people belonging to that demographic, organisation or ideology grew tired of one-sidedness, felt treated unjustly, and demanded a more balanced attitude towards them. Imagine a world where politicians, celebrities and the media talked often about the faults of blacks, or teachers, or Catholics — and rarely (if ever) about their good deeds or their merits: would the argument “we're just reporting events, all this is true, it happened”, being strictly correct, exonerate them from a very understandable accusation of prejudice and a demand for fairness?
We're talking a slap here. Aren't you exaggerating?
That's precisely my point: this was just a slap, and the reactions to it are indeed exaggerated. That's why I'm writing this.
But these incidents have a strong symbolic value. Isn't this slap consequential by virtue of the setting, the people involved, the global audience?
You know what has strong value far beyond symbolic and doesn't get amplified enough in water-cooler commentary and social networks? Human suffering, human well-being and human lives. Imagine that a country of more than forty million people is suddenly invaded by a much more powerful neighbour. Imagine all men between the ages of 18 and 60 in that country stay to fight the invader, while women in the millions flee. (Imagine men stay because they're banned from leaving, but don't get me started on that.) Is there a more “benignant” masculinity than fighting a war and risking your life to protect everybody else (including women)? Does it get any better than that? And yet: how many times in the last weeks did you broadcast recognition and praise for all those men (not “citizens” or “combatants”, but “men”) giving their lives for their wives, daughters, sisters, mothers? If what Will Smith did the other day is so clear-cut, blatant and consequential as to deserve the label of “toxic masculinity” and the public opprobrium we have seen, then surely there are tons of amazing displays of masculinity to highlight and celebrate each and every day. If your Masculin-o-Meter® is so finely tuned that it pointed to a famous rich man slapping someone (another famous rich man, no less!) and so you denounced it in public as toxic masculinity, then your detector must have been keeping you so busy for so long highlighting also noble masculinity and the actions (and even the sacrifices) of so many men, most of them anonymous. For that, I salute you.