Opinion | Will Smith and the correct politics of the slap

Combination picture showing Will Smith hiting Chris Rock as Rock spoke on stage during the 94th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 27, 2022. PHOTO: Reuters/Brian Snyder

Until the Oscar Night on Sunday, the greatest victim in the international arena was a comedian – just like Chris Rock – the Ukrainian President, Volodymyr Zelensky. No longer.

Last week, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, said he was a victim of a US/NATO conspiracy, and that he was clear that the cancelling of Russian literature in many Western universities and Russian artists in the wake of the Russian operation in Ukraine was typical of the vindictive behavioural norms of the elite west.

Well, all these victimhoods have been overtaken by Jada Pinkett, the super-rich, super-powerful African American wife of the super rich, super powerful African American actor Will Smith, since the Oscar night, when Chris Rock said: “Jada, I love you, GI Jane 2, can’t wait to see it,” referring to her buzzed head. A charitable interpretation of that joke is, like the head-shaven Demi Moore in that war movie, Pinkett overcame the odds in man’s world. But no one was willing to grant the comedian the benefit of the doubt.

In most reports and social media comments, you will not see the first four words ( ‘Jada, I love you’) before he throws the barb. Evidently, he did not mean harm. After he was slapped, he still said to Smith, “I love you.”

Had the night been hosted by someone like Ricky Gervais and had he picked on Pinkett, she might have been in tears. And Will Smith probably would have clubbed Gervais to death, and later apologized, and explained the victimhood that lead him to a terminal act of justice.

Will Smith and Chris Rock
FILE PHOTO: Will Smith (R) hits Chris Rock as Rock spoke on stage during the 94th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 27, 2022. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

In an older Academy function, Gervais had roasted Leo DiCaprio: “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, nearly three hours long, Leonardo DiCaprio attended a premiere, and by the end, his date was too old for him. And even Prince Andrew is, like, come on Leo mate, you are nearly 50, son…” What is not to take an insult here? Yet DiCaprio only chuckled.

A woman in his place would be howling. So would a man like Will Smith.

Albert Camus said the greatest philosophical question of the 20th century was suicide: “There is only one really serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that.” Camus chose to live.

The greatest philosophical question of the present century is: Is Your Joke Out of Line? Indeed, it is: How Am I Offending You?

In February 2021, in India, the comedian Munnawat Munawar Iqbal Faruqui was arrested for a joke he did not crack and spent over a month in jail. There are other comedians like Kunal Kamra – mostly a correct joker, as he is against the Modi regime – who are under some kind of gag. Generally, laughter is injurious to health.


Indeed, the question is slightly more complicated than that. As we now know, the potential assassin of humour is not just the State anymore. It is Victims in general. And the Comedians are the victims of the victims. It is an endless chain.

The Oscar night showed the nature of the crisis of laughter. Jada Pinkett is an alopecia patient. Well, I am short, dark, and bald. In some white and civilized country that must enable me to be a victim, hopefully.

Will Smith is a billionaire star, who does pretty much as he pleases including slapping comedians in public. But his acceptance speech soon after winning the Oscar and slapping Chris Rock makes him out to be a victim: a man out to protect family values like standing up for his wife who is the butt – or head – of a joke.

The question, therefore, is: in a self-entitled world, who is not a victim? And can a joke be cracked without offending someone somewhere? If Pinkett felt insulted she could have walked out, instead of telepathically influencing and infecting Will Smith with the virus of victimhood, and seeking justice for the assault. It is just Rock’s luck that guns are not allowed into the Academy.

Women are historically victims. So now let’s assume that Chris Rock, just before he came on stage underwent a gender operation and became a woman, and who still cracked that GI Jane joke. Would Will Smith be the more guilty of intolerance? Or, if Jada Pinkett were a man, and still married to Will Smith, would the alopecia joke be less cruel?

The tidal wave of correctness that the world is awash in, sweeps it past even small islands of truthful communication or expression of feelings. Even as this piece is being written, a book festival in California has ‘disinvited Pulitzer winning novelist and poet Alice Walker from its event due to the author’s history of making remarks about Jews and Israel.’ Reportedly, in 2011, she said, “ Israel is the greatest terrorist in that part of the world.” Is this a punishable offence? And does it merit cancellation?

If the California Festival that cancelled Alice Walker is not a joke, what is? Walker joins a list headed by writers like Nabakov, Hemingway, Dostoyevsky, and Joseph Conrad among others. All of them are undergoing cancellation of varying degrees. It is possible that the Academy might cancel Smith's award yet. And this of course would be naturally the wrong thing.

And none of the listed writers is blacklisted by the State. They are silenced and shamed by Groups. So what we have now is not just censorship by the State, but also one by Groups. In short, both the State and Groups have arrived at a point of convergence.

The written word, like the uttered joke, means not much if it does not offend. As the canvass for both shrinks in terms of the increasing number of taboos, free speech would slowly elide into silence, if that has not already happened to a great extent.

The language we think in and speak is beginning to be so much guided, it is virtually policed. What that means is that our communication is largely confined to neutralities and inanities. We are no longer saying what we feel; but what we ought to feel. We are well on our way to a prescriptive, authoritarian society – of, by, and for the people. Indeed, it is possible that we would soon be speaking in emojis indicating general expressions of wonder, grief, and approval.

The best we can hope is for the friendly and truthful articulation of feelings in small secret circles. The truth would be a matter of cabals and clubs because we would be afraid to offend. And there is no telling whom we could be offending at any given point in time.

At the Oscar, it was clear that Chris Rock, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett were not strangers. If this is what friends can end up doing to each other on one of their best days, on a bad day nothing less than mayhem and murder await.

The Oscar night tells us three things. 1. The most powerful people in the world, deep down, consider they are victims, and cannot take a joke, and that a cosmetic condition like alopecia can be made out to be worse than cancer, or some such. 2. Comedians must tell jokes that put children to sleep. 3. In the future, in events like the Oscars, the host and the audience must attach beepers to their mouths and speech manuals in their pockets.

The world is heading towards silence. And it screams with what is unsaid.

(Views expressed are personal)

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