On the slap

March 31, 2022 11:12
Photo: Reuters

Chris Rock decided to go off-script with a joke at the Oscars 2022.

And the rest, was – well – history.

Will Smith’s physical assault (slap?) on Chris Rock will go down in modern television history as one of the most ignominious and scandalous episodes in recent years – which says, in equal parts, something about the anodyne nature of contemporary entertainments, and about Smith’s hyper-macho-androcentric-performatively-outraged-not-really-justified attack on Chris.

In seeking to make sense of the ethics at stake here, I want us to revisit the age-old adage – and note, it doesn’t really age, if at all. Two wrongs, do not make a right. With an added twist, of course: it is technically feasible and possible that if one is reacting to a wrong, one is permitted to conduct actions that would, under other circumstances, be deemed wrong. For instance, it may be impermissible for me to deploy force against someone. Yet if said someone is actively trespassing and crossing into my property without my permission, I would have the right to – within reason – physically expel that said intruder. This is a commonly assumed and adopted doctrine in American law, and it reflects the broader point at stake here: the wrongness of another, can contextually render an otherwise wrong act, ‘un-wrong’.

Yet this is clearly not the case here with the Smith-Rock altercation. Let’s be very clear here. It shouldn’t be a controversial statement to make, that in face of verbal derision and mockery, violence is unlikely to be a proportionate answer. Yes, a joke may be offensive. Yes, a joke may be inappropriate. Yes, a joke may even be morally impermissible – yet such speech should not be ‘reciprocated’ with a physical attack, irrespective of how unduly insensitive or vulgar the content of such speech may be. Those who glorify Smith’s actions on the basis that he is “acting rightly” or “retaliating” against Rock’s surly insinuations – should think twice about their conceptions of moral proportionality and normative appropriateness.

And indeed, in the case of the altercation, Rock’s joke was by no means appropriate, either. It was embedded with a rather wanton degree of insensitivity to the plight of Jada Pinkett Smith, in relation to her alopecia. Joking about someone’s disability, appearance, or ailment, does not thereby render one ‘cool’ – it renders the individual engaged in the act of humour, for a lack of a better word, a bit of a prick. Indeed, I would go further, in positing that his speech-acts have actively reified problematic imagery and casualness concerning the plights of those suffering from alopecia.

Both Smith and Rock are at fault here. And the moral messiness of this scenario stems from the fact that Smith’s actions – unlike my restraining the hypothetical intruder in the example above – are not rendered fundamentally justified or justifiable by the words of Rock. This is for two reasons. First, in conventional ethics and law, we tend to weigh physical injury as of a qualitatively distinct nature, and of systemically greater urgency, as compared with propagated social-discursive harm. Second, we do not accept, in legal contexts, an individual’s anger – let alone vicarious anger – as a tolerable defense for aggression towards others. Smith might have found Rock’s words vulgar, yet such insolence did not amount to any form of normative support for his behaving out of line.

As for this bizarre take, that Smith was “defending the honour of his wife”. OK, that’s a nice thought. But it’s also a deeply flawed thought that neglects the agency of women – and the rights of women to fend for themselves through pacifist, non-violent means; the rights of individuals to be appraised and judged through non-violent public scrutiny and critique (which, I’m sure, had Smith not punched Rock in the face, the latter would certainly have been subjected to given the precipitous trends in social commentary by leading media outlets), as well as the fact that, maybe, just maybe, violence should not be excused through appealing to the imagined and constructed preferences of women.

Surely, men should not be allowed to get away with their moral violations and transgressions, through employing women as an excuse? Surely, we can and must do better than to excuse violence because it is invoked to allegedly “defend the vulnerable” – in turn, a rather dodgy assumption when paired with the context at hand, for there exists an implicit and highly misogynistic assumption, that women are ostensibly “more vulnerable” than men?

It’s surreal watching the controversy around the slap unfold – on Twitter, on Facebook, on news channels and elsewhere. And the reason for such surrealism is very clear: in Ukraine, in Yemen, in Palestine and beyond, we have a war. At the Oscars, we have a slap. Let’s put things in perspective here. Folks are dying in all corners of the world under military subjugation and oppression, and yet the talk of town remains with… the slap? How is this not a farce? How could this remotely even be the case? These are… bizarre times indeed.

We are well and truly through the looking glass here, people.

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Assistant Professor, HKU