Why has physical violence become more acceptable than name-calling?

Last night at the Academy Awards, Chris Rock made a joke involving Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia. Her husband, Will Smith, responded by walking up on stage and hitting Rock. Then he sat back down, yelled at Rock, and the awards program continued.

In other words, the AMPAS, the people running the show, everyone in that audience, decided there was nothing wrong with assaulting someone on national television for the offense of making a joke at someone else’s expense.

I wish I could say I’m outraged, but I’ve stopped being surprised by such things. We’ve been plummeting to this level for a long time.

When I was a child, my parents taught me the mantra “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I was a big child, and a target of taunting and teasing from smaller children with smaller intellects. Smaller children trying to goad me into acting on their subpar level. My parents were trying to teach me that—though most in the world are good, caring, and thoughtful—there are always people who are mean and nasty, who can only raise themselves up by tearing down others. But that a physical response to verbal taunts is not acceptable in a civilized society.

I learned that lesson well. I do not hit people who call me names, who insult me. I don’t even respond in kind. I do, however, remember them. I keep them on my list of those who are undeserving of help or even consideration. But I do not hit them, because I am not an animal.

We’ve spent a generation or two teaching our children how evil it is to say certain words, express certain ideas. We’ve been trying to make the world a better place. But we seem to have glossed over the “be strong, grow a thick skin” aspect of it. Recently, a friend wrote of her trans-child’s pain over a store clerk misgendering the child. It was a clerk in a store, a stranger, who said sir instead of ma’am. No outside observer would ever mistake that situation for an attack, but apparently my friend had not taught her child the mantra my parents taught me, and the child suffered great emotional pain because of the incident.

Last night, Will Smith showed that he, too, had never learned that lesson. In his field, he’s a powerful man. He could have exacted revenge on the writer of that jape, could have damaged his career. He could even have simply stood up, turned his back on Rock, and walked out. But he didn’t. He did not try to rise above the situation. Instead, he dove even lower, offered a completely uncivilized response. He showed us that—at least in Hollywood—public violence is acceptable, and an awards program is no place to stand up for civility.

An hour later, while accepting one of the night’s awards, Smith apologized, saying “love will make you do crazy things.” But the whole point of being civilized and rational is that we ought to be able to think through our actions, even in such a situation, and not do such crazy things.

If it was acceptable to walk up on stage and hit Rock, would it have been acceptable to pull out a knife and stab him? Or shoot him with a gun? And if, instead, Smith had waited until after the show, would that have been better or worse?

How can we express confusion over the rise in violence in our cities, when our idols do what Will Smith did last night?

After-effects: the Los Angeles Police Department said Rock declined to file a police complaint. The Academy said it does not condone violence of any sort.

2 thoughts on “Why has physical violence become more acceptable than name-calling?

  1. Perhaps it is because it seems like bullies (making fun of someone’s medical condition qualifies) no longer respond to name-calling, public shaming even legal threats. Chris Rock is no Hollywood lightweight himself. He’s a high net worth, high status figure. He thought he was relatively safe in making the joke live on stage, otherwise he wouldn’t have done it.. Did he think he was powerful enough in Hollywood to ride out any consequences? I don’t know if we’ll ever know.

    The audience booing Chris Rock off of the stage (once the shock of “what the hell did he just say” wore off) would have been, in my opinion, a response more in line with theatrical traditions (I’m fairly certain no one had rotting fruit secreted away in their diamond encrusted handbag) and would have highlighted the fact that he was effectively throwing a good part of his future earning potential into the garbage. A strong, vocal negative reaction from the audience would have felt appropriate.

    Another thing. The incident exposed that the whole notion of defending a loved one’s honor still exists. Will Smith felt he had to do something. However, did he do it to protect her honor, to protect his own ego, or some mixture thereof?

    Lastly, would anyone have been upset if Ms. Pinkett-Smith had walked up onto the stage and done the deed herself? After all, she’s more than capable of defending her own honor and did not need her husband to do it for her.

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