And yet letting our grown-up pride
Hide all the need inside
Acting more like children than children.

Bob Merrill, Jule Styne 
People

‘The Slap” at the Oscars a couple of weeks back has been thoroughly dissected and discussed, but I can’t resist adding a few thoughts: 

It was shockingly bad, but it could have been worse. Will Smith struck with an open hand, not his fist. That’s not much better but still better. It doesn’t mean we’re getting more civilized. It means we still have a long way to go. Many shadows reside in our psyches that need to be purged as we evolve.

He could have slapped Chris Rock with a glove, but that would have meant he was challenging him to a duel. At least dueling is no longer an option.

Ironically, the Oscars celebrate a medium where “the slap” makes frequent appearances, hundreds of times in films over the years. Somebody could put together quite a slap-happy film-clip montage. Someone probably already has. After Nicholas Cage tells Cher he loves her in Moonstruck, she slaps him, twice, and says, “Snap out of it!” Abraham Lincoln slaps his own son, Robert, in Steven Spielberg’s film, Lincoln. Women usually do the slapping in films and the guy usually takes it. Chris Rock took it. He didn’t retaliate. So he came out of this looking better than Smith. 

“The slap” has been normalized, along with a full range of other violence, in the films (and video games) we watch. We take it for granted on the big screen. But when it happens in real life, not reel life, it’s shocking, an act of raw retaliation. Brute force. 

People often say, “That felt like a slap in the face” after the surprise and sting of someone’s words or actions. Most of us, I’d wager, have never been physically slapped in the face. Most of us have never slapped anyone. It underscores the huge gulf between movie reality and the real world. As big a gulf as the one that exists between movie heroes and the actors who play them.

In the real, or maybe ideal, world, here’s what Will Smith should have done: He should have walked up, put his arm around Rock’s shoulder, pulled him close so he could use his mic, and said, “Chris, I’m fair game, but leave my wife out of this. Men have been beating up women and beating them down for far too long. That joke was mean. Don’t be mean. You’re better than that.”

Imagine the thunderous applause raining down from the rafters. That’s the difference between “standing up” for your wife and “protecting” her. Wives don’t need protecting. They want a stand-up guy. Not a stand-up comic … or a stand-up tragic.

Would I have had the presence of mind to do that under the circumstances? Probably not. 

But I sure wish he did.

Rock didn’t deserve the slap, but I hope he becomes a better comic and a better person, less mean-spirited in his jokes.

Smith probably didn’t deserve a 10-year exile from the Oscar ceremony. He did deserve the Best Actor Oscar, but what he also deserved was a mandate from the Academy to devise an effective campaign against the vicious cycle of retaliatory violence afflicting this society, thanks to easy access to guns. He should be required to appear in clever, creative, entertaining public service announcements, preferably with Chris Rock. Force them to work together.

It’s called “restorative justice.”

That might make Smith a better role model and a better person. More Will power, so to speak.

The best commentary I’ve read about “the slap” came from Kareem Abdul Jabbar. The second best came from Denzel Washington.

After the incident, Washington didn’t console or berate or sympathize. He told Smith, which Smith quoted in his Oscar acceptance speech, “In your highest moments, be careful. That’s when the devil comes for you.” Which reminds me of the old Paul Simon song, “the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip-sliding away.” Smith’s destination wasn’t the Oscar. It was respect. But you can’t get others’ respect if you don’t show self-respect. That was not the action of someone with self-respect. That was the action of someone desperately seeking self-respect, then watching it slip-slide away.

Jabbar, for whom my respect only grows, summed it up well in the opening of his statement:

“When Will Smith stormed onto the Oscar stage to strike Chris Rock for making a joke about his wife’s short hair, he did a lot more damage than just to Rock’s face. With a single petulant blow, he advocated violence, diminished women, insulted the entertainment industry, and perpetuated stereotypes about the Black community.”

His ending was even better:

“I don’t want to see him punished or ostracized because of this one, albeit a big one, mistake. I just want this to be a cautionary tale for others not to romanticize or glorify bad behavior. And I want Smith to be the man who really protects others — by admitting the harm he’s done to others.” 

I hope Smith and Rock come out of this as better men. 

We need better men.

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