Updated: Apr 5
As expected, social media is set ablaze with the latest polarizing topic of Chris Rock and Will Smith; the self-righteous defending their unsolicited opinions within the safety of their echo chambers and black and white mindsets. Attempts to present an understanding of an opposing view is quickly interpreted as agreeing with with or condoning the actions of the other side. "So, you think it's ok to ______(hit someone, make a joke at another's expense)?"
The misconceptions and arguments are both predictable and unfortunate. Everyone seems to have an opinion, but miss the mark.
"Chris crossed the line and he paid the price"
"There is NO excuse to ever hit anyone, EVER!"
"Jokes have been told at my son's expense and I never assaulted anyone"
"He laughed at first so he couldn't have been too upset"
"The joke was cruel and Chris had it coming"
"He's a role model, he should have known better"
"What if it were a female comic who said it, would it still be ok?"
A view On one side we have "the joke crossed the line" crowd; the empaths who understand the severity of the emotional assault and the feelings of powerlessness to combat it. They can't fathom personally attacking someone with such a cruel, verbal assault that will cause pain lasting much longer than the sting of a slap across the face. The conclusion: If you can't understand this you must be heartless and uncaring.
On the other side is the "violence is never the answer" crowd, using anecdotal evidence of how they themselves have never hit anyone when verbally attacked to justify their position. They can't comprehend anything bringing someone to a point of physical violence, especially when it is meant as a joke. The conclusion: "If you can't deal with this, you are overly emotional and lack control."
So which side is right and which is wrong? The simple answer is "both." The fact is, the joke did cross the line. But, who gets to decide where the line is? Will Smith does. Does that justify him hitting someone? Absolutely not, however I certainly understand why he did.
Let me offer some context before defending the conclusion you may have already reached.
A View From The Ropes
I attended a leadership retreat many years ago where one of the exercises included climbing a 30 foot pole, walking across the horizontal pole, then be lowered to safety by the people holding the ropes connected to the harness we were wearing.
I was one of the people holding the ropes for my other teammates who went first. Some could only make it to about 10 feet before fear forced them to climb back down. I was puzzled by the fear since they were fully equipped with a harness and a team of people holding ropes supporting them. It wasn't logical or rational as there was virtually no risk of injury. I may have even felt a tiny bit offended by the lack of trust in me since I had a firm hold on the ropes.
When it was my turn, I felt a few butterflies, but since I had never been afraid of heights before, I brushed it off. I approached the pole and looked up thinking, "Whew! That's a long way up there from this angle." As I began to climb, I stared straight up, focusing intently on the next peg in front of me until I reached the crossbeam. I pulled myself up and as I stood, I caught a glimpse of the ground below. Panic stricken, I latched on to the vertical pole, frozen with fear. Harnesses and trust meant nothing as I trembled in front of everyone.
My thoughts raced uncontrollably as a range of emotions hit me; fear, shame and humiliation being at the top of the list. I felt I had failed in front of everyone and questioned how they could ever respect me again. 'What the hell happened to me?," I thought.
When asked if I was ok, I cringed as I was forced to utter the word, "No." After my proposed helicopter rescue was dismissed...repeatedly, they instructed me to sit down, slide off the beam and they would lower me down by the ropes.
"I'm afraid of falling and you want me to jump!!!!?"
I was irrational and angry they were exposing my perceived weakness even further. I was angry with myself for failing. Safely on the ground, I retreated to the main lodge in shame with my questions of logic painfully answered.
This day, I crossed a line I was unaware of, triggering a response I couldn’t control. Psychologically, my limbic system, responsible for my fight, flight or freeze reactions, kicked into overdrive and I froze. In that moment, I was unable to control my fear or think and act rationally to this perceived threat. This certainly wasn't a biological or psychological reaction I chose, as my plan was to walk triumphantly across the beam and validate my bravery.
It's About Trauma
I have read several takes on the event ranging from misogynist, black, feminist...it is none of them. It's simply about trauma.
In his memoirs titled “Will,” released in 2021, Smith revealed the significant trauma he experienced as a child. Physical, verbal and emotional abuse was common growing up, and he watched his mother repeatedly and violently abused at the hands of his father and was powerless to stop it. At the age of 13, he contemplated suicide.
This scenario is quite familiar to me as I too stood powerless at the age of 6 as my father held a gun to my mother's head. The pain in her eyes is still vivid in my mind. My attempt to stand up to him resulted in being sent to my room and told not to come out when I heard the bang; the blame placed squarely on my shoulders for my defiance.
When we experience traumatic events, our memories of the event, thoughts and emotions are stored in the amygdala to quickly be recalled to respond to a threat or perceived threat. When trauma is experienced repeatedly, especially in childhood, events we experience later in life are often seen through the lens of our childhood trauma, causing reactions void of logic or rationale. The "Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study, a landmark study by Kaiser Permenente in the 1990's, leaves little room to dispute the effects of childhood trauma and how it impacts us in adult life.
Smith's attempt to laugh off the barb abruptly ended when he looked at his wife and saw the pain in her eyes; pain he had seen countless times growing up in the context of verbal, emotional and physical abuse. The "fight" impulse in a perceived threat is just as strong as the "freeze” impulse and every thought and emotion he felt at the age of 9; guilt, powerlessness, fear, hurt, anger, and a hundreds of thoughts all being recalled in a fraction of a second from a place rarely accessed.
This doesn’t mean physical violence was justified or that it excuses his behavior. It does however, explain it. To those who are holding the ropes or merely spectators, you don’t get an opinion on if the line was appropriate, only if the behavior was.
As for Chris Rock, his job is to make people laugh, and in doing so, he will push the boundaries. Sometimes he might take it too far and in turn have consequences for his actions as well. Perhaps we need to take a step back and reflect on ourselves as to why we find humor at the painful expense of others. Our perceptions might be different if it were our struggles being used to fuel laughter in front of millions of people. It's always easier to say: "it was just a joke", "he should have known better," or "I would never do that," when you are only holding the ropes.
Consequences and Compassion
Let go of the ropes of your belief, and look from a new perspective. We can have compassion and understand yet not condone or accept behavior. Rather than ask, "what's wrong with him?", ask "what happened to him?"