Don’t justify Will Smith’s Oscar slap with the noxious notion that speech equals violence
The slap seen ’round the world from Sunday night’s Oscars ceremony holds an important lesson on free speech.
That was no doubt the farthest thing from Will Smith’s mind when he charged the stage at the Academy Awards to pop Chris Rock after the comedian joked about Smith’s wife, actor Jada Pinkett Smith, and her nearly bald head. But he vividly demonstrated why we must resist the idea that “speech is violence.”
For those who want to vigorously police microaggressions, shut down ideas they disagree with and demand that tech companies and government help them do it, some words cause so much trauma that they equal violence. And to some extent, they have a point about how much certain comments can hurt, especially young people.
Jada Pinkett Smith has detailed her struggle with alopecia, a condition that causes extensive, if not complete, hair loss. If Rock knew that, he’s a jerk for poking fun at such a sensitive issue during a worldwide broadcast.
But there must always be a bright line between actual physical assault and words, however hurtful. Otherwise, the state’s duty to regulate violence will extend to language, and that’s the end of free speech rights, possibly forever.
Some progressives — including, frightfully, a large share of younger Americans — say they’re fine with that. Either they can’t think beyond the current moment to a time when their views aren’t culturally dominant or they can’t imagine a politician they don’t like (Donald Trump, anyone?) commanding such extensive powers.
Some immediately leaped to defend Will Smith’s reaction as chivalrous (though they seemed to miss his initial laughs at Rock’s joke, until Pinkett Smith stared him down). In a turn that all those movie-makers in the room couldn’t have scripted, Will Smith got to speak as he accepted the Best Actor award. He hinted at the chivalry argument, saying: “Love will make you do crazy things.”
For a moment, it was refreshing to see the masculine virtue of defending women demonstrated to the type of crowd that’s glad to see manliness crushed.
But Smith’s reaction cannot be condoned. And it absolutely must not be justified as an acceptable reaction to Rock’s words.
Rock responded like a pro. He didn’t strike back, though he must have wanted to. He stumbled through an introduction of the nominees for best documentary and just moved the show along.
We can’t pretend that in his restrained reaction, Rock meant to illustrate the important divide between speech and actual violence. But we can be grateful for his example.
— Ryan J. Rusak is opinion editor of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.