First, let me begin with what I believe we can agree on – that everyone was shocked at this year’s Oscars when actor, Will Smith, slapped comedian, Chris Rock, one of the show’s award presenters, in response to a “joke” Rock made about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith’s short hair-cut, which apparently is to hide her alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes one to lose their hair.
Personally, I found myself debating whether or not Smith’s violent reaction was justified or not. The truth is I have conflicting views about it. On the one hand, I cannot condone or justify violence. But, let’s face it, all of us who have lost our temper or our cool at some point, myself included, can sympathize with what it feels like when we perceive someone or something to be threatening us. However, sympathizing and empathizing does not mean condoning.
Curious about what others thought about the incident, I conducted an informal survey with friends, family, and patients. Here’s what I found: While everyone was, indeed, shocked by the event, reactions diverged. I received a spectrum of ideas on what the incident meant, who was harmed, and who deserved empathy.
As I tried to make sense of the “slap,” and as much as I wanted to comfort myself by coming up with a split (acceptable / unjustified) view of what happened, I could not. I had competing feelings. I can’t condone Smith’s violence, but I also understand why he may have been driven to respond as he did.
Let me explain the complexity of my views.
The Neuroscience Behind Smith’s Attack on Rock
Neuroscientists can easily explain Will Smith’s actions based on two parts of the brain; the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. According to science, if we feel threatened or frightened, emotionally or physically, our amygdala becomes activated and goes into a “fight or flight” response. After Rock’s “joke” about his wife, Smith clearly experienced an urge to attack, or fight.
On the other hand, the prefrontal cortex is the brain region responsible for regulating our emotions and controlling our urges. When fear sets in, the front part of the brain assesses the situation and modulates our actions accordingly. In other words, when Smith perceived Rock’s joke as a threat to his wife’s emotional welfare, his prefrontal cortex was unable to override his behavioral response.
Will Smith’s Slap was a Trauma Response
We’ve all heard the terms PTSD and trauma, but what do they really mean?
Trauma, as distinct from more common intense stress and anxiety, may happen in a flash and be unexpected and shocking (a natural disaster, a violent attack), or may evolve slowly over time (abuse or neglect). When a person has experienced trauma from their childhood, the brain and body store that traumatic memory, which can be reactivated by present-day situations.
In the case of Smith, he detailed in his 2021 autobiography, Will, that he witnessed physical violence at home as a child. He wrote: “When I was nine years old, I watched my father punch my mother in the side of the head so hard she collapsed. I saw her spit blood. That moment in that bedroom, probably more than any other moment in my in my life, has defined who I am.”
In other words, Rock’s joke targeting Smith’s wife, along with the distressed look on her face, triggered the early memory when he was 9 years old. To be clear, this does not give Smith license for the present-day trauma reaction that involved slapping Rock.
Was Will Smith Just Being a Man?
Does this incident relate to the way men and boys are socialized in our society? We know that boys and girls receive different messages about aggression and violence, and how it pertains to their identity at a young age. Girls are taught to get along and “not rock the boat,” while boys are taught to “be a man” and be aggressive. Was Smith protecting his family member when a threat was present a “cool” thing?
We need to push for changes in how society reinforces and models emotions and behaviors for both genders. Strength should not be equated with aggression, rather strength should be about good communication and solving problems with words.
Violence is not limited to slaps. Violence can be the words we use to mock, exclude and control. In my view, Rock’s joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s hair was cruel and tantamount to a verbal assault. Perhaps we need to get greater clarity on when “teasing” is in good form and when it is bullying. (I know several women who have alopecia and fear societal humiliation and shaming because of it.)
How do we stand up for those we love in ways that best support them?
While I agree that physical assault is wrong and not heroic. I also believe that Will Smith may have been doing what many husbands would do at that moment – protecting his wife, in good faith, when she was being degraded in front of the world. For that matter, had he remained in his seat and yelled profanities, we might also say that such words could have been just as violent.
In comedy and in life, one must be careful what comes out of one’s mouth. Words are powerful weapons and can do a lot of damage.
Difficult people challenge us and can bring out both the best and the worst in us. We have a choice.
I know many of you have strong views about the incident and I welcome hearing from you.