Smith Slaps Rock. Does Speech Ever Justify Violence?

Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscar’s last night. Rock, well-known for his acerbic wit, was preparing to present the nominees for the Academy Award for Best Documentary. The camera focused on Smith and his wife Jada Pinkett Smith just as Rock quipped, “Jada, love you. GI Jane 2, can’t wait to see it.” The reference was to the 1997 film starring Demi Moore, her role as special forces requiring her to shave her head. Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia, am autoimmune condition that causes hair loss. Pinkett Smith rolled her eyes at the joke. Her husband laughed. Then, realizing what he (Smith) had done, he walked up to Rock and assaulted him.

Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the Oscar’s last night.

Did this really happen? Or was it a simulation? It looked real enough. Planned or not, the strike was genuine. If it was staged, what was the point? I can see none. Neither Smith nor Rock had anything to gain from the stunt. It tarnishes Smith’s image. If he comes out later and claims it was a ruse, which requires Rock either admitting the same or lying for Smith (thus tarnishing his image, as well), it will appear either as a factitious act without purpose (it’s not as if Smith needed to Jussie Smollett his career) or an attempt to dissimulate the reality of unjustified violence. How could this not be real?

Let’s proceed as if it were real. Despite having violently assaulted Rock, Smith was not arrested. Those who justified his actions claimed that he was defending his wife’s honor. (Odd to see those first in line to condemn the patriarchy find Smith’s actions chivalrous.) Does speech ever justify violence? No. If you disagree with the words that come out of a person’s mouth or hand (pen, gesture), and the situation permits open debate and dissent, then you may engage the speaker in kind—i.e. with words. Otherwise, you may either sit quietly and listen or leave the presence of the speaker and the audience. Speech is never a justification for violence.

Violence is justifiable only under three conditions: (1) defense of self against on-going or imminent physical assault; (2) defense of innocents (those who cannot defend themselves) against on-going or imminent physical assault; (3) abolition of tyranny, i.e. situation of illegitimate oppression or violence. These conditions obtain at individual and collective levels. Had Rock met Smith’s violent actions with physical force, this would likely have been justified action. Rock could not be sure Smith only had in mind a single blow. But Smith’s action has no justification legally or morally. Rock has declined to press charges. He should.

I know people are already sick of this. Two privileged entertainers living lives working people can only imagine. Why waste time blogging about it? Because the moment is an instantiation of the pathology of wokeness. It signals an erosion of liberal values of free speech and the ethic of non-violence in dispute resolution. Only last year, when asked about the possibility of a political career, Smith ranted about “systemic racism,” a central notion in the ideology that inspired rampant violence during the summer and fall months of 2020 and continues to motivate and justify violent behavior. Physically assaulting others over their speech acts—a comedian, no less—is no longer the sole expression of rightwing reactionary impulse (if it ever was). In today’s political climate, the progressive is all to eager to commit violence against others for some offense or another. Taking offense is the spirit of woke progressivism.

“Sticks and stones may break bones, but words can never hurt you.” Remember that slogan from our childhood? There is a reason why we were taught to say that. First, it builds resilience. The world is a place were people say things to get a reaction. The child who is prepared to take in stride offensive speech grows into a well-adjusted and reasonable adult; cognitive health depends on honing one’s skills to resist the impulses of the id. Second, the slogan articulates a principle foundational to a free, open, and tolerant society. Words apart from action don’t inflict injury. Words don’t work that way. As Frank Zappa insisted, they are words. Check your anger and jealousy and keep your hands to yourself. But Biden threatens to take people out behind the shed. And Robert De Niro wants to punch them in the face.

What about “fighting words”? In successive decisions, the Supreme Court has sharply curtailed Chaplinsky v New Hampshire (1942) to the point of effectively overturning it (Chaplinsky was a ridiculous decision given the circumstances.) Brandenburg v Ohio (1969), four rulings in 1972 (Gooding v Wilson, Rosenfeld v New Jersey, Lewis v New Orleans, and Brown v Oklahoma), and Collin v Smith (1978) narrowed fighting words to “a direct personal insult or an invitation to exchange fisticuffs,” as articulated in Texas v Johnson (1989). Smith, attempting to save face after laughing at a joke about his wife’s medical condition, can hardly claim to have been the subject of a direct personal insult. Rock’s utterance was clearly a joke. Rock is an insult comic. This is the essence of his routine. On the other hand, Rock could reasonably interpret Smith’s actions and works as an invitation to exchange fisticuffs. To his credit, Rock showed remarkable restraint. And poise. After a moment of dismay, he continued with his assigned duties.

Comedians are given special leeway in a free society—even in societies that are not so free (recall the court jester)—to say the things that others are thinking but too afraid to say. Humor is a way to acknowledge the inner thoughts of the audience, to create mutual knowledge, and to release tension. Comedy makes a society honest. Indeed, we are so entertained by comedians is because they safely function as a release for notions we keep bottled up. So we have collectively agreed to let them say the uncomfortable things for us. They occupy a ceremonial or liminal space that serves to reduce the anxieties aroused by social interaction and uncomfortable thoughts. Comedians are, in an anthropological sense, the universal shaman, independent of this or that doctrine. As we have seen, the woke are joy eaters. For them humor is not what makes people laugh—everybody laughed at Rock’s joke because it was funny—but rather what produces clapter. And clapter is just another manifestation of virtue signaling.

One last thing. Folks are qualifying their criticism of Smith by criticizing Rock’s joke. The hedge typically takes this form: “Smith’s wrong doesn’t make Rock right. Both things can be true.” But if Chris Rock was wrong, then Will Smith wouldn’t have laughed. Just because a joke is personal doesn’t make it unfunny. Both of those things can be true.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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