[Editor's Note: This is a version of an article published in the Out of Frame Weekly, an email newsletter about the intersection of art, culture, and ideas. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Friday.]
It is the understatement of 2022 to say that there's been a lot of discussion about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars because Rock made a joke about Smith's bald wife.
Was the joke inappropriate? Was The Slap staged for ratings? How did Smith's marriage affect his reaction? Can we blame The Slap on White supremacy? Should the Academy take his award back? All are ...interesting questions, but they are irrelevant to the single most notable fact about the situation: That large numbers of people think it was excusable for Smith to slap Rock over a joke.
For what polls are worth, 52 percent of Americans believe Rock was more at fault than Smith, according to a survey of more than 2,000 people by Blue Rose Research.
Opening social media will allow you to confirm this fact by your own experience as you are bombarded with a deluge of pro-Smith takes, which include:
"But his joke was in bad taste."
Many people are saying Rock was wrong to joke about Jada Pinkett Smith's baldness, which is caused by an auto-immune disorder.
One tweet with over 100,000 likes said:
Chris Rock’s one “joke" was rooted in misogynoir, texturism, & ableism. Degrading a Black woman, in a room full of her peers, on live TV. The fact ya’ll [sic] don’t see that as violent is beyond me.
This idea was also picked up in articles by Time ("Don’t Overlook the Misogynoir That Lies at the Root of the Will Smith-Chris Rock Incident") and PopSugar ("Jada Pinkett Smith's Alopecia Is Not a Joke For Your Oscars Entertainment"). Quoting the PopSugar article, which trended on Twitter:
Rock's implication that he can't wait to see her in "G.I. Jane 2" was insensitive. It attempted to continue a long-standing tradition where Black women are often the ones on the receiving end of quips about their appearances and are still expected to roll with the punches and laugh it off.
"But free speech has consequences."
Many people are defending Smith by saying that free speech does not mean that people are immune from consequences.
While true, this statement is barbarically irrelevant as a defense of Smith's brutality.
No one wants to live in a world where you can be attacked because someone else doesn't like what you said, and where this violence is accepted. The fact that, apparently, we do live in such a society does not make it morally right.
This has been said so many times that it sounds basic for people who agree with it, but apparently there are many people who need to hear it repeated: Words do not justify violence. This is true regardless of how much they make someone feel offended or disrespected. Someone can be justified to respond to a perceived offense, but not with violence.
"But he was defending his wife."
Actress Tiffany Haddish, who also has extremely short hair, said, "That’s what your husband is supposed to do, right? Protect you. [...] It was the most beautiful thing I ever seen."
This is the common narrative of Smith defenses, but people who watched the Oscars will note that Jada Pinkett Smith was not under attack. See above.
Similarly, Marjorie Taylor Greene, US Representative from Georgia, tweeted, "I have to say I appreciate the Alpha male response of a husband defending his wife."
This comes from the same congresswoman who often decries cancel culture, who wore a "CENSORED" mask during Donald Trump's second impeachment, and who played the victim when journalists pulled up old social-media posts endorsing assassinations against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. So, threats of violence and lying about an election should not have consequences, but G.I. Jane jokes should?
Defenders of The Slap are evenly split across the political spectrum, which suggests that many people (such as Greene) who would label themselves free-speech defenders are O.K. with Rock being slapped.
This shows how many people don't actually believe in the universal principle that words shouldn't be met with violence or censorship unless they cause actual harm. Instead, they want people to be free to say things they like, and censored if they say things they don't like.
This is nothing new. Almost 200 years ago, English philosopher John Stuart Mill lamented that "There is, in fact, no recognised principle by which the propriety or impropriety of government interference is customarily tested. People decide according to their personal preferences."
Though The Slap did not have to do with the government, the situation is the same.
How rare is it to see people who defend the principle of free speech based on principle, regardless of whether they agree with the particular ideas being expressed (such as when the American Civil Liberties Union defended the rights of neo-Nazis)? And how common is it for people to say "I believe in free speech, but not for things that are really bad. There's a line that you can't cross."?
Apparently for a lot of people, that line is jokes about Jada Pinkett Smith's bald head.