Fact check: Turns out violence is not always wrong and it can solve some problems
Trigger warning: still more discussion of something we were all sick of 4 days ago
So everybody’s wound up about Will Smith’s slap. I guess I’ll just go ahead and pile on then…
I promise, I had no intention to say a word about this.
Then I saw that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, one of my childhood sports idols who has a Substack I look at with some frequency, wrote there about it, chastising Smith for his anti-feminist macho and for giving credence to the idea of blacks as particularly prone to violence. My childhood love for Kareem the player was too great to allow me much antagonism, even though I very often disagree with the political stances of the post-NBA Skyhook King (but he’s spot on in criticizing some of the current NBA players who publicly spread ignorant perspectives on COVID vaccines).
Nonetheless, the tone here was a bit much, in my view, given what we are talking about (a slap in the face, after all, involving no obvious physical injury). And since I know a lot about Kareem’s playing career, it was not hard for me to recall an instance where he did something even more egregious than what Smith did, i.e., he sucker punched an unsuspecting player in the face, giving his target a concussion and breaking his own hand. Here’s the comment I left at KAB’s account:
This should be forgotten. It doesn't characterize Smith as a full person any more than Abdul-Jabbar punching Kent Benson in the face was representative of KAB's full personhood:
You lose your cool sometimes and do dumb things. It's human. Let's stop being so overwrought and whiny about this. Smith lost his cool, and he was wrong. He has apologized. Rock wasn't physically hurt. Let it go.
I’m not going to get too wound up about the details on Smith’s slap, especially given that there are apparently lots of layers concerning his relationship with his wife about which I know nothing and, since it’s not my business, I have no desire whatever to be better informed on that. My view of The Not Really All That Important Hollywood Thingy that Happened and Made Everyone Forget Way More Important Things in brief is this:
Smith saw that Rock’s comment (a joke about her hair, which she cuts short because of a medical condition) was not well-received by his wife. Smith and his wife apparently have some history with Rock that I can’t be bothered to look up, but so I’ve heard. So Smith did something that men have been doing for a long time, and which most men probably don’t have to work very hard to understand: he physically went after another guy who said something disparaging about a woman he loves. Most of those men who understand and even empathize with the emotion will still recognize that you have to learn to master and control that or things can get out of control and produce more problems than the disparaging remark.
When I was a kid, we all played the dozens, creatively insulting one another in a kind of crudely vulgar poetic competition in which the winners were those who could come up with the most clever ways to denigrate the opponent. If the opponent lost his cool, technically, you won. But everyone also knew there was some territory it was wise to stay away from unless you were actively looking to escalate to the physical level. Talking too abusively about somebody’s mother had a good chance of not going well for you if the somebody was bigger than you.
So, yes, Will Smith should have better controlled his anger, and he deserves criticism for what he did, but I frankly can’t be all that furious with him for doing what I might feel moved to do too if somebody said something about my wife I really didn’t like while I was standing there right in front of him listening. (And I don’t think it’s because I’m a better person than Smith is but probably mostly because I’m considerably less wealthy and need to keep my job for a while that I would almost certainly do a better job of controlling myself).
The part of all this that interests me most is the way in which violence is being discussed in its aftermath and what that says about our culture. Again, this is pretty minimal stuff, as violence goes, isn’t it? A slap to the face? If you haven’t ever seen worse than that in real life, then you’ve led an existence very different than the one I have, and one we can call objectively charmed. But it’s been talked about by a lot of those talking as though it were indistinguishable from much more serious violence, and from violence that had no claim whatever, however tenuous, to having been provoked.
And of course, there has been the predictable pouncing by the feminist academics and media sources to point out one more bit of “toxic masculinity” and to renew their call for the elimination of all behavioral tendencies associated in any way with traditional male roles. Here, for example, is CNN parading around a few male feminist academics asserting (since they know what was in his head better than he does) that Smith didn’t really act because he was trying to defend his wife out of his love for her, but only because he was defending his own status. CNN also does us the invaluable service of giving us a hotline to call in case we were “triggered by (Sunday) night's events at the 94th Academy Awards.”
“Violence is never okay.” That’s the take home from the CNN parade of “experts.”
Smith himself apologized after the fact and he used this same language in the apology:
“Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive…There is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness.”
In the New York Times, far left activist writer Roxanne Gay expressed a view that I have no doubt resonates with a lot of the left-leaning American public. Gay, who has elsewhere written about how she believes the possibility of forgiving others for their transgressions against us is nothing more than an aspect of “white privilege,” said she thought what Smith did was wrong but that those targeted by insults like Rock’s joke about Jada Pinckett Smith should not feel that they cannot take action in response to such insults. What kind of action? She wasn’t forthcoming about this, but she did perfectly echo Smith on violence:
“Violence is always wrong and solves very little.”
We had some discussion in one of my classes recently on this matter of violence (without reference to the Smith/Rock thing—I am constitutionally allergic to the widespread practice of constantly bringing contemporary pop media events into class). I’ve had similar conversations with many other classes over my two decades in this business. Eighteen year old college students can almost always be made quickly and easily to see how off the mark the statements of Smith and Gay (and many others) on violence are.
What is “violence”? Here’s Merriam-Webster:
vi·o·lence | \ ˈvī-lən(t)s
1a: the use of physical force so as to injure, abuse, damage, or destroy
b: an instance of violent treatment or procedure
2: injury by or as if by distortion, infringement, or profanation : OUTRAGE
3a: intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force
b: vehement feeling or expression : FERVOR
also : an instance of such action or feeling
c: a clashing or jarring quality : DISCORDANCE
Is violence “in all its forms” destructive? “Destructive” means “causing great harm” or “negative and unhelpful.” Is it always “poisonous”? “Always wrong”? Does it never “solve” more than “very little”?
Finding examples of violence that elude all these description is quite a simple matter, so simple that one wonders if the people who say this kind of thing have thought about the topic for more than a few seconds. This is mostly due to the fact that Will Smith’s utopian view of our world (“a world of love and kindness”) is perhaps an aspiration but not close to a reality. There is evil in our world, and a considerable amount of it. Violence has frequently been used in human life to stop evil that cannot be persuaded to stand down non-violently and stop pursuing evil ends. You might already have guessed where I’m going. Hitler and his army were not going to be stopped by overwhelming displays of love and kindness and platitudes about how violence “is always wrong.” They were stopped with violence and the threat of continued violence until they stood down and surrendered. Only the Nazi faithful could possible have understood that violence that stopped the Nazi war machine as “negative,” “unhelpful,” “poisonous,” “wrong,” and “solv[ing] little.”
Yeah, yeah, I agree, it’s always too easy to go to the Nazis as an example. But more mundane examples are everywhere. Police snipers sometimes take out criminals holding hostages with well-placed bullets, or they taser violent suspects doing or threatening violent things, or they crash into speeding cars driven by maniacs to get them off the road. Even when the intention is to minimize harm to the violent criminal, it sometimes happens. Are we really to imagine that we take the higher moral ground when we tell police to refrain from such violence, because it is always wrong and inconsistent with a world of love and kindness, and just leave the hostages and the bystanders and the other drivers to the mercies of the violent criminals?
It goes all the way down. Though schools advocate strongly these days against bullying, it still happens. It was very frequent when I was young. And I remember more than a few incidents in which a bully was made to stop bullying a weaker victim only by a well placed knuckle sandwich from a tough guy ally of the victim. No one but the bully and his acolytes failed to understand and cheer the justice and moral righteousness of this good violence.
So, yes, though we may not class Smith’s slap in this way—and for the record, I don’t—there certainly is morally righteous, positive, problem-solving, and helpful violence. The world is complicated like that. Platitudes—even those that, unlike “all violence is wrong,” are true—generally are not. And they are also not very helpful in the construction of a mature and realistic worldview, given the world we’re in.
I wish our culture were mature enough to be able to reflect on events like this in a way that didn’t immediately dissolve into an ocean of empty clichés. I believe it once was. But it has been colonized by those with beliefs like those of the woman who shouted at me at the cafe over my views on Ron Artest nearly 20 years ago. Let’s see how this all works out…