I’m trying to understand why so many of us were triggered by the slapping incident at the Oscars. Some understood and even sympathized with Will Smith. Some were enraged that Chris Rock suffered from a slap in the face for simply doing his job. Others were offended, thinking Will took away his wife’s power to defend herself.
Why so much angst over this particular incident? It was at a ceremony where members of the movie industry once again dressed up and congratulated themselves. Take away the silly pomp, and this moment boils down to a smart-aleck insulting a woman and getting slapped for it by her husband. It’s not really a big news item. It might only have gotten a line in the public records somewhere, but it got more attention because it was on TV and occurred between artificially famous people.
I can’t deny that it touched off some old trauma in me, which explains why my heart pounded, my fists clenched, and my eyes welled up every time I thought about it. On the one hand, I think it’s wrong to hit people. On the other hand, it’s wrong to insult people and then play the victim when someone retaliates.
I read an article by Melissa Hankins, MD, that referenced Will’s autobiography, where he describes how at the age of nine, he saw his mom get beaten by his father and then speaks of his lifelong regret that he didn’t have the courage to defend her. Hankins suggests that this childhood trauma is behind Will’s actions at the Oscars. It doesn’t excuse Will’s actions, but perhaps it helps explain them.[i]
I think Chris Rock was violent, too. I know he is a professional comedian expected to ridicule people, and for some reason, society says that’s okay. But he used his position to say something hurtful, which is also a form of violence.
I maintain that words can be used as a form of violence. Children can suffer lifelong damage from their parents’ words. Spouses can traumatize each other with them. Some preachers hurt their congregations with rage-filled words couched behind religiosity. And crowds are stirred to physical violence with words.
I grew up watching people I love being harmed by the spoken word. I have spent my entire adult life feeling guilt over childhood memories where I thought I should have stood up for someone even though I was just a child myself. I’m sure I became a professional caregiver to protect and help people heal from their long-term wounds.
People can say Will Smith is a bully, but I understand that he thought he was standing up to a bully. Others can speculate that his wife manipulated him, but to whom else would she show her tears? And some of us can say Chris Rock is a bully, too, but maybe he is also a victim of childhood abuse. In fact, I’d bet money that he was.
The older I get, the more I see only the wounds of others, which don’t excuse wrong actions, but perhaps they are a key to real healing for people.