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All of us would have remembered what we were doing when we first heard about the “slap that went around the world”.

No, I’m not talking about the rider who hit a hearing-impaired woman in Sengkang, although that dude deserves to be drawn and quartered.

I’m referring, of course, to Will Smith’s open-handed slap across comedian Chris Rock’s face for daring to crack a joke about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith at this year’s Oscars.

I was driving to work when the radio deejay, who up to that point was giving breezy updates about the annual movie award ceremony, suddenly announced incredulously that a real-life piece of drama had occurred.

My first thought was, “What? Surely not? It has to be a stunt to drive up ratings, right?” After all, the Oscars have been suffering from declining interest in the past years, with last year’s viewership hitting an all-time low.

Here, you can decide for yourself if it was staged. Please take note, Smith drops a couple of F-bombs, so it’s not for sensitive ears.

But, gimmick or not, the blow across the comedian’s face sent millions of people frantically googling on their phones and journalists (myself included, unfortunately) scrambling to add our two cents to the issue.

Virality ensues.

Why so serious?

So why are we committing so much time and effort to commenting on this 45 seconds of madness?

Perhaps it’s because, human that we are, there’s only so much heavy news we can take about the war in Ukraine, Covid in the world and the rising price of petrol in our cars before we start to yearn for a good old-fashioned celebrity spat.

Will Smith and Chris Rock in a throwdown at the Oscars? Pass the popcorn please. And the internet seemed to agree, with memes and jokes abounding even before the show ended.

 

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Or perhaps it’s because in this seemingly shallow moment (Rock stayed on his feet after the slap, recovering quickly enough to announce that “this is a single greatest night in the history of television”), there are bigger commentaries on social issues.

So what is comedy? Should we be surprised that a comedian known for pushing the boundaries of taste makes a slightly off-colour comment about a famous personality?

Yes, it’s a lot less funny once you realise that Pinkett Smith’s hairdo isn’t a result of her love for a buzzcut, but due to a hair-loss condition she has called alopecia, which disproportionately affects African-American women.

So yes, I get it. It was a bad joke.

I often quip that a joke that falls flat isn’t the fault of the audience. It’s the fault of the comedian who fails to read the room. And Chris Rock, for all his prowess at making social commentary through insightful (or should I say inciteful) humour, made as they say in the industry, a big boo-boo.

But so was Smith’s response.

His actions – first an uncomfortable laugh, then seeing his wife’s upset response, to get up and let his fingers (or open palm, as it were) do the talking, is not the actions of a gentleman. And that swagger back to his seat, from where he launches into a vulgarity-filled tirade, is the actions of a thug.

You can protest, and you certainly can criticise someone for saying something you disagree with.

But to stride up to a man and deck him for saying mean things – doesn’t matter what it is about – is barbaric. Smith should know better than that.

Moments later, Smith would go on to win the best actor Oscar for his role in King Richard, a biographical sports drama of how tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams became who they are from the coaching from their father Richard – who incidentally condemned Smith for his actions after the ceremony.

During his acceptance speech, Smith apologised to the Academy and his fellow nominees, but did not apologize to the man he slapped.

Later on, Smith would issue a longer apology on social media.

 

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Rock, on the other hand, has been receiving near-universal support from celebrities for taking the hit on the chin, quite literally.

So is it a case of art imitating life, or life imitating art?

I’ve read good commentaries that try to explain why the actor did what he did, bringing in issues of race, society and celebrity star power.

Others that wonder how the Academy will punish the actor. My take? There will be much public hand-wringing over the issue, then Smith will get off with a slap (pun fully intended) on the wrist.

Violence is never the answer

As Isaac Asimov famously wrote, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”
What could Smith have done? Deep down inside, some of us would probably applaud his gumption for standing up for his wife and decking the guy who disrespected her.

But we should be above such caveman responses.

This is a show that is broadcast to millions of households across the world, and the people involved are celebrities whose actions can influence many, especially the younger among us.

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This isn’t an altercation on a boozy night at the pub after someone had a few too much to drink.

What message is this sending? That there are situations where it’s okay to resort to violence?

This is not an act of a man standing up for his wife. This is an act of a man who didn’t think things through… or if you’re a particularly cynical journalist, the act of an organisation that is trying to address falling ratings.

The reaction should fit the action. If someone makes an off-colour comment, call him out. Or talk to him privately. Not punch him out publicly.

Why are we not universally condemning the act? Why are we finding reasons to excuse the act of one man striking another? Generations from now, people will look back and be divided into two camps: Those who fault Will Smith for smacking a guy for talking smack about his wife, and those who would defend him.

I exaggerate as a joke, of course. Please don’t hit me.

Can violence really be justified? Could it be because Smith is an actor that we think that this surreal episode is somehow less real?

Making it a meme trivialises the incident. Spending too much ink (digital or print) on this distracts us from other issues. And during a time when civilians are dying in a war, or when the environment is hurtling towards climate disaster, are we guilty of focusing on the wrong news?

But since everyone is talking about this. Let’s settle it once and for all and move on. Yes, plenty of people are talking about this – as viral news goes, this cannot be beat. But there are more important things to focus on.

I believe that there are no winners here. Okay, maybe Chris Rock, whose stand-up shows ticket sales skyrocketed after the incident. Not even an Oscar winner is going to come up smelling of roses.

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But I also believe that Smith will probably walk away from this encounter relatively unscathed. Oh sure, he is making the usual contrite sounds, and I’m sure his redemption arc would leave us all hanging on the edge of our seats.

Already, people are defending his actions.

I don’t. I respect the actor. I like him in his roles. But I can dislike his actions.
And this, sir, is a Razzie-worthy moment for you.

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Top Image: Oscars 2022