28 March

On Ethics And Morality: Was Will Smith Right To Smack Chris Rock In The Face? Was That Really Love?

by Jon Katz

(Photo, The Hill.)

Aim above morality. Be not simply good, but good for something.-” Henry David Thoreau.

Was Will Smith justified to slap Chris Rock in the face live at the Oscars while watched by millions of people worldwide of all ages and faiths, and nationalities?

I’m still going over it in my mind, as is much of the country. But I’ve figured out how I feel.

I should say that I believe that compassion and empathy are the basis of objective morality. Violence draws people of little or no character.

Morality is not the doctrine of making ourselves happy or vengeful but how we make ourselves worthy of happiness.

I was up watching the Oscars when I saw Smith rush out of his chair and run down the aisle and onto the stage before one of the world’s biggest audiences and slap a fellow star, a famous and respected comedian.

An Oscar nominee, Smith, and his wife had a seat close to the stage.

At first, I was sure it was a joke. Then, I realized it wasn’t.

I thought good for him; Chris Rock had just uttered a cruel and tasteless joke about Smith’s wife. I’ve loved every movie Will Smith has been in.

I wanted to write about it this morning, but it was confusing because there was also something repellent and troubling about what Smith did and how he tried to cloy and slobber his way out of it. What bothered me was that he pretended to have taken a moral position, he had committed an act of loyalty and love, he claimed.

I decided to wait, and I’m glad I did.

What do I stand for anyway? What do I truly believe in, and what is my idea of the moral man and woman? Truth, ethics, and responsibility are in trouble in America; their decline erodes our values, traditions, and civility.

Just minutes after Smith rushed out of his seat and onto the stage to hit Rock for making fun of his wife, Smith won the Best Actor award and gave a long and rambling speech justifying what he had done.

The address was an incomprehensible and calculating mess, but nobody cared since he was suddenly crying.

Smith tried to present himself as a moral man driven to madness while trying to protect someone he loved.

He corrupted and twisted and exploited the very idea of what love is and means.

He was, he said, a person of love whose purpose in the world was to defend the people he loved.

Really?

Late Monday, Smith belatedly apologized for slapping Rock in a post on Instagram:

Jokes at my expense are a part of the job, but a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally,” he wrote. “I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong. I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be. There is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness.”
Smith added in his post that, “Violence in all forms is poisonous and destructive.”
I imagine his agent and publicist did some come-to-Jesus talk with him. Better late than never. I can’t know what is in his heart, but what came out of his mouth was good.

Smith shed many Hollywood tears to show what a sensitive victim he was and was celebrated, supported, defended, and sympathized with all over the country. He was defending his wife, an outspoken and accomplished actor who said nothing and made no statement. You know the dance when there’s trouble if you’ve ever spoken to a Hollywood publicist.

Be humble, seem repentant, admit nothing. Never take responsibility. And if possible, lie and cry.

Will Smith didn’t cry when his wife was made fun of. He saved the tears for his moment in the big spotlight.

The reporters at the Oscars said his publicist showed up seconds after the incident and was whispering in his ear before his talk. They were worth every penny.

You could argue that love isn’t about punching nasty people you don’t like or who say bad things about you or the people you love. Love is about calming down,  thinking about, talking to them if possible, suing them, or punishing them in several lawful and legal ways. Love is about empathy and compassion.

Slapping someone in public is a shaming tool, not an act of love. It is dehumanizing and cruel, it reveals the soul of the slapper.

Taking responsibility would be a moral position, not a publicist’s emergency pitch for damage control. Smith’s crying saved the day.

Chris Rock is an easy person to want to slap. All the more reason for not doing it. Stars learn from the first day to walk away. With success comes scrutiny, criticism, and second-guessing. It is no life for the thin-skinned.

Smith is not some teenager working off a drink and overreacting. He’s been a big star for years. He knows you don’t hit people in the face on live television. It isn’t intelligent, and it isn’t right. Rock is a brilliant comedian, funny, cutting, and brutally honest. Lots of people want to slap him. Only one person has.

Smith is a famous, admired, and gifted actor, an adult, father, and husband. What he did was wrong. There is no excusing it.

One would think he could control himself, and if he needed to confront Rock,  why not do it backstage or outside or through an agent or in an interview on the phone so that countless children and people everywhere might not think it okay to attack people who annoy you or insult you verbally.

Or better yet, get help.

I can imagine fighting if my wife depended on it or my wife or daughter’s lives were in danger. I’d do almost anything (I hope) to save them.

But attack someone in that brutal way?

I hope not.

The idea that Smith followed this brutish behavior by being honored so lavishly and defended so vigorously is yet another sad reminder that we live in a violent and angry culture and have forgotten how to talk to people rather than hate and attack them. They should have pulled that statue right out of his hands and told the world that this is not how we do things in America.

If the Oscar people had any spine, they would ban Smith from the Oscars for years, even for life. This will not happen. Young boys are thrown in jail for years for smoking some dope. Rich people live in a different system of justice.

What Smith did is what makes famous actors famous.

He gave an Oscar-worthy speech, full of tears and humility. I couldn’t buy it. His explanation made no sense other than being self-serving and whiny. He was brave enough to slap Chris Rock but not take responsibility for what he did.

In seconds, his son was on Twitter, issuing the family creed: “And that’s how we do it.” Family lessons learned. Some men think with their balls, not their minds.

Rock is no sweetheart, but he is at least honest about how he feels.

This act of violence has much more meaning than a slap on the face. It will echo throughout the country and all around the world. A lot of innocent people will pay for it.

As a husband who adores his wife, I understand why Smith would want to do what he did. My first response was to cheer.

Smith almost convinced me that he regretted it until I saw all of the publicity and support and praise he received for being violent in public, drawing every bit of attention away from the many people present who were hoping to find recognition for their work, not his temper.

His speech was slimy and contrived. And selfish, a narcissists’ revenge.

Nothing on earth is more important than him. Pity the people who spent years working on their movies only to be cast aside and forgotten by a boy who never grew up.

Aren’t politicians and actors constantly being prodded and provoked? Doesn’t that happen to anyone who is open or public online? (Yes.)

I’d love to know how many Will Smith fans – I am one of them – will rush out and punch the first person who annoys or insults them – or maybe do worse.

Wouldn’t it have been so meaningful for Smith to get up on that podium and say he was outraged at the comments Rock made and say they were cruel and should never have been allowed to tell them in public that his wife is not fodder for people’s jokes?

He could have been a different role model and hero, not just another man who uses hides behind his testosterone.

Rock’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, has long been a target of gossip columns and smartasses like Rock.

She has an immune disorder that keeps her hair from growing hair. But she is also a challenging and accomplished actor who has never had any trouble speaking out for herself. She is known for being tough and speaking her mind.

Does she need her husband to get up and punch someone on her behalf? Is that the message that strong women are advancing to their partners and spouses? Fight for me? Hurt people who hurt me?

I asked Maria what she would have done if someone had taunted her or me like that.

Would she want me to get up and punch them?

“No,” she laughed, “if I were angry, I’d go punch them myself.” Whew.

In 2021 Pinkett posted a video on Instagram in which she explained her closely shaven style, writing, “Mama’s going to have to take it down to the scalp. Me and this alopecia are going to be friends…period!”

She often talked about her hair loss, saying in 2018 that she suspected it might have been caused by stress. “I’ve been getting a lot of questions about why I’ve been wearing this turban…well, I’ve been having issues with hair loss. And it was terrifying when it first started.”

Her openness and honesty were admirable and refreshing. She was also controversial.

She was sure to draw the attention of someone like Rock. That’s how the game works. The sharks in Hollywood and the media are always eating one another.

(Alopecia is commonly caused by an autoimmune condition that attacks the hair follicles.)

If she had stood up and marched up on the podium and told Rock off to his face, she would have been an instant hero to me also. And a powerful model for so many women. Her husband was anything but heroic.

I found Rock’s joke tasteless and cruel, but since Pinkett often spoke of her hair issues, it is not beyond reason to think it was fair game in Rock’s eyes,  if in awful taste.

Comedians always press the boundaries of good taste and decency. The message for comedians is to be afraid.

During his jarringly self-serving “apology,” in which he refused to apologize to Rock but apologized to everyone else in the world, Smith shamelessly claimed to be a warrior for love.

He said Denzel Washington, a mentor, had cautioned him to be careful. “When you’re at you’re highest,” Washington told him, “that’s when the devil finds you.”

It was a great line. He didn’t believe it.

Smith was at one of the highest points American culture can offer anyone.

But the “Big D,” as Smith calls Denzel, was prescient.

The devil found him, stole his love, and turned it into shit.

28 Comments

  1. Like Biden’s comments about Putin last week-end in Poland, the man is only human. He’d been visiting refugees and their children that afternoon. He expressed what I believe most people feel. Putin should be charged with war crimes. It’s time the world recognized that political differences are allowed, but don’t push them off on other countries. As to Will Smith, tension must have been running through him like a fast moving river…up for the best actor. I didn’t watch it as I’m too old to know most of the people featured last night, but to publicly humiliate joking about Jada Pinkett’s condition was as far as i’m concern, in very poor taste and reflects on the stupidity of the man who made the joke. Hitting him, in public, no but then actors act on the passion of the moment and this, I believe Will Smith was doing. What was he to do, sit there while the guy insulted his wife? In the old days this would have been a duel and one might have died for it. Poor taste all round.
    Sandy Proudfoot

    1. Thanks, Sandy, I appreciate your message. My own feeling is yes, that is exactly what he should have been doing, sit there while the guy insulted his life and then gone to speak to him with his wife about how they felt. Is she mute and helpless? If that failed, there are about a dozen peaceful options for him to pursue. Going to war is not the only answer, or so I hope, for him or Vladimir Putin. That is my moral value, I do appreciate hearing yours. My wife would be furious if I humiliated her in that way.

  2. Completely agree with you on this one. Will Smith assaulted Chris Rock. He committed a crime. I ran groups for 10 years for men who were convicted of violent crimes. One very common belief they shared was “no one disrespects me and gets away with it”. Their definition of disrespect was anything from another guy looking at or talking to “their girlfriend” to “their girlfriend” not listening (not “obeying”) to them. Will Smith was not “protecting his family”. He was modeling violent behavior to his children and everyone else. Will should be held accountable for this assault.

    1. Yes! I totally agree with you Jean. Violence especially in our current world climate is inappropriate. It did seem out of character for the presenting Will Smith, however it has given the world an opportunity to discuss values. I think he should lose his Oscar, but be allowed (given time) to recant and review his actions. This is a powerful example of good people doing wrong. there for the Grace of God…

    2. Like I have said before….”How many women have heard that same line…from a batterer? “I am doing it out of love, baby?”

  3. I know that you seldom use profanity, so ending this essay as you did was quite impactful. It really did underline the effect of Smith’s actions. His claim of acting out of love is particularly disingenuous as Jada Pinket Smith is no damsel in distress. She is a powerful woman with a platform and following of her own. She could have taken Chris Rock apart all on her own without ever lifting a finger. Will Smith growling a warning not to say “my wife’s name” — rather than Jada’s name — just proves this was more about testosterone driven territoriality and toxic masculinity. I expected far better from Will Smith.

    1. Thanks for noticing that Terry. I do hate to uses profanity and I fussed and agonized over this word. Then I decided to leave it, because it best said what I felt and what I thought he did.

      1. I love laughing, Angela and there is a funny side to it. BUt I wouldn’t laugh at being slapped in the face like that.

  4. Will Smith should have been hauled out of the theater. What a sad display. I totally agree that if a ‘non star’ individual had done such a thing their butt would be in front of a judge so fast as to make your head spin. I could always take or leave Will Smith and his movies. . Now I will definitely leave him. And the Oscar committee will most likely put their head in the sand over this. If they take any action in this matter it would be a miracle.

    1. Thanks Pamela. He did apologize tonight, better late than never. He apologized to Chris Rock on Instagram

  5. I understand Smith’s anger and concern to protect his wife but I don’t like what he did. I don’t know if many kids were watching but that slap in the face sure didn’t set a good example on how to behave. So when someone says something you don’t like you get to smack them? Yeah, that’ll get you far in life. Teachers tell kids to “use your words” … a much better way to solve conflicts. I guess not all adults have learned that.

  6. Jon…
    I’m not over-thinking this one. These guys are first-rate actors doing what they do best. If not, why did Will Smith slap instead of punch? And, why didn’t Chris Rock react angrily?

    A huge TV following is a tempting audience for such displays. (Remember George C. Scott and Marlon Brando?)

    So, Hollywood, get over yourself. The real world holds drama enough.

  7. Great piece John. I also couldn’t understand why Jade Pickett Smith didn’t get up and defend herself?? From what I’ve seen of her in the media, she appears completely capable of dealing with Chris Rock herself, which is exactly what was needed.

    This unsavoury incident has also taken the spotlight off CODA’s wonderful Best Picture win – you called it!

  8. As a person who has never been a Will Smith fan, his behavior at the Academy Awards didn’t really shock me. What I would like to see is the spotlight off of him, and on the other award winners and presenters who showed Grace and lifted us up with their kindness and joy.
    If Will Smith cared about his wife rather than his own pride, he might have shared how brave and courageous she has been, gone on to educate the public a bit about Alopecia and stood proud. For me, his behavior brought negative attention, rather than celebrating Jada’s beauty and uniqueness.

    1. Yes, If Smith had stood up there and said a few words to the international audience about his wife’s condition….that would have been epic.

  9. Chris Rock handled the attack well. He kept his cool and didn’t throw a punch as well as trying to keep to the script. He deserves credit for his professionalism. Although I found Rock’s comment as bad as verbally making fun of a cancer victim who has lost his or her hair or a MS victim in a wheelchair. Not cool or funny. Smith’s physical assault on Rock was not justified. I also didn’t buy the tears in his acceptance speech. Maybe he should win an Oscar for that performance. I remember Jada making a public fuss about Will not winning an Oscar several years ago. Maybe he didn’t deserve an Oscar at that time. Rock should know that making fun of physical defects is not comedy and Jada and Will should know how to accept loss graciously and that violence is not acceptable. Maybe the three of them are taking their cues from Trump. It’s unfortunate that this incident overshadowed the next Oscar recipient’s moment in the sun. I don’t think any of them should be invited back to next year’s Oscar celebration.

  10. I agree with you. I’m disheartened by the number of people on social media who found his behavior chivalrous. There was an absolutely heart warming genuine moment at the Oscars that much fewer people are talking about. Watching Lady Gaga with Liza Minelli was so touching and genuine that I started to tear up. Now that’s a true mensch.

  11. I worry about other comedians now. I especially worry about the ones struggling in small clubs. Will they be free to pursue their art or worry about someone punching them? Will it cause them to sensor their jokes? Will Smith set a poor example that I worry too many people will follow.

  12. I worry about other comedians now, especially those struggling in small venues. Will they feel they have to sensor their jokes now for fear of being punched.? Will audience members now feel free to go on stage and punch performers? Will Smith set a terrible example that I fear will give foolish people a license to react violently to performances they don’t like.

  13. What a shame this Will Smith/Chris Rock debacle overshadowed what was supposed to be an enchanting, glamorous evening to honor stellar excellence in acting. I look forward to the show every year. I love when any form of art is recognized and rewarded. It’s a great reprieve from weekend after weekend of all-day football and basketball, Masculine sports dominate the networks. But there are no complaints about their length or violence. Think about that. I’m worried that some day the once-a-year, three-hour academy award show will dissolve. This just gave everyone who complains about it food for fodder. What a shame the nature of the beast is to always focus on the negative. There were so many beautiful and entertaining moments in the show that were diminished because one little man’s ego was bruised. But that’s not new either.

  14. Thanks for your essay, Jon. I wonder what you thought when you were watching the Senate hearings for Judge Jackson and heard nearly all of the Republican senators, especially Lindsey Graham, in their verbal and brutal attacks of Judge Jackson before millions of TV viewers. Graham mad an utter fool of himself when he would ask a question of Judge Jackson but would immediately interrupt her answers. Where was his civil tongue? Judge Jackson’s husband of 26 years was there, but he refrained from going after Graham. Of course this was an entirely different situation, and it was necessary to sit there and take it. I so wanted to slug Graham, as I’m sure millions of other national viewers were thinking the same things.
    Mr. Rock should never have made that stupid joke. I’m sure he had prepared it for the public to hear. Jada did not deserve to hear it. In the heat of the moment, Will was outraged and acted on impulse, which indeed was a mistake.

  15. I have never watched the Oscars and never will. My disinterest is total. But reading your long essay has once again made me thoughtful, this time about courtesy in general. I have never heard of these actors, but obviously their actions and reactions are quite interesting and you have thought about them carefully and have discussed them with Maria.
    Several times recently I have been turning to my husband to ask “what do you think about…?” The last time on President Biden’s off the cuff words. Maria’s response to you is just what I would have expected and once again you open a window into your private life = always appreciated and enjoyed, thank you.

  16. A friend of mine posted a comment asking people to let black women take the lead on this conversation. Specifically black, disabled, women, as they are the people that are the most marginalized. He didn’t say not to have a voice but to ability theirs as well. I have been reading a lot of view points from them. Black women are rarely defended. I would like to know what Jada Pinkette Smith has to say.

  17. Chris Rock’s joke may be viewed as tasteless. On the other hand, the lead character in GI Jane was tough and determined, and continued to move forward despite obstacles thrown up by others’s opinions and actions. In retrospect, this could be viewed as a compliment to Ms. Smith.

  18. You cant have freedom and JUSTICE, creative self, if you have violence. Jesus’ life illustrates resolving disputes wo his committing violence. The romans /herod dominated via aufhoritarian violence. Like Putin, Trump,, Mussolini, et al.

    I hit my son once when he was five. I was impatient, he was stalling. I will never forget the look on his face; like he had lost trust in me.

    Violence encourages violence esp in the next generation according to science.

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