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There Was No Honor in Will Smith’s Behavior

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We’ve all likely had a chance to gather our thoughts since the slap that was heard around the world. Whether or not you care about trivial celebrity culture, there are certain instances that permeate all of our newsfeeds, rendering them impossible to ignore. 

The recent 94th Annual Academy Awards ceremony, an event honoring the best in the film industry, was overshadowed by a brief, yet shocking onstage altercation between actor Will Smith and comedian Chris Rock following a joke that was aimed at Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. For what it’s worth, the joke was not anything out of the ordinary for the brand of comedy often used by the hosts and presenters at Hollywood’s biggest night of the year. There is a long tradition of A-list celebrities being the butt of innocuous jokes, and it is part of their job to take them like professionals. Will Smith’s overreaction and disruptive outburst revealed his fragility and astonishing lack of self-awareness that night. 

However, the instant Smith’s palm struck Rock’s cheek, a pop cultural moment for the ages was solidified, accompanied by an impassioned discourse. The ensuing melodrama has forced us all to engage with, whether enthusiastically or grudgingly, a matter that seems very far removed from our own personal realities. Without missing a beat, a single, viral image immortalized the event, only to be memed into oblivion and burned into every last one of our brains. It has been the cheap, go-to icebreaker for casual conversation in the days following the incident, and will be referenced for years — perhaps decades — to come.

When something like this happens, a line is drawn in the sand and we’re asked to choose sides. We become emotionally invested to one degree or another, and whatever side of the issue we fall on affirms our identity and the principles we hold. Then cue the media, particularly those of the Yahoo and Buzzfeed News variety, who can’t resist an opportunity to turn a salacious celebrity story into a “woke” word-salad about race, gender and disability politics. Might we remind ourselves, this is the same contingent that preaches about compassion and empathy, and regularly conflates words as forms of violence. However, it appears they’re unbothered by any kind of physical violence, as long as it reinforces their ideological worldview. They were also very quick to shut down any sort of criticism coming from outside of the Black community, claiming it wasn’t anyone else’s place to comment. However, this was a widely publicized moment — a moment that Smith chose to make public. This increasingly common rhetoric that absolves one group from any kind of criticism by invoking race politics prevents us from having a healthy discourse. Of course there is a nuanced way to discuss these issues, but there is also right and wrong.

Rightfully, most of Hollywood expressed their dismay — and even disturbance — in the aftermath of Sunday’s events. The overwhelming sentiment being that the boorish behavior was not reflective of Oscars decorum, and that it ultimately detracted from other winners’ special moments. We should be disillusioned, not merely by Smith’s actions, but by the fact that he received a standing ovation just minutes later upon receiving the award for Best Actor and giving a nonsensical acceptance speech. It spoke to the power of in-group dynamics and how quickly the collective inertia of an audience can normalize antisocial behavior.

The phrases Smith used during his speech, like wanting to be a “vessel of love” and the notion of love making a person do “crazy things” were cop-outs. There was utter incoherence between the principles he blubbered about with the actions we had all witnessed just minutes earlier. We should instead look no further than Chris Rock as a class-act and beacon of upstanding behavior in the way he conducted himself in those moments. While it may be absurd to look to the most privileged and out-of-touch members of society for teachable moments, it appears that is where we are in this celebrity monoculture. Though it might’ve felt like a complete stunt — or even a psyop, meant to stoke our most base and emotional instincts — it reminds us that there is far more dignity in self-restraint. 

Melissa Newell is an Opinion Staff Writer for the spring 2022 quarter. She can be reached at mrnewell@uci.edu.