‘The freedom to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.’ Apparently, Will Smith and his defenders have never heard this, or any variation of it. At the Oscars on Sunday, Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith. In response, Pinkett-Smith’s husband walked up to Rock on stage and slapped him across the face. Smith went on to win Best Actor and publicly apologise to everyone except the comedian he assaulted. He also got hugs from other celebrities and a standing ovation.
Chris Rock made fun of Jada’s bald head. The actress has cut her hair off as it was falling out due to her alopecia. So, Rock’s joke may have seemed tasteless to some, but that does not excuse Will Smith assaulting him. If Ricky Gervais had been hosting, it would have been a lot rougher, as Mel Gibson can testify to. Darker jokes like Gervais tells still would not have justified Smith’s violent reaction.
One of the co-hosts that night was Amy Schumer, who has been known to make offensive jokes. If she had made that joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith, it is very unlikely Will Smith would have reacted in the same way he did to Chris Rock. And if he had, he would probably have been arrested, not applauded. The fact that Rock is a man should not mean he can be assaulted for making a joke.
While what Will Smith did was completely inexcusable, it is, sadly, not all that surprising given current attitudes to freedom of speech. The idea that words are violence is not entirely uncommon, and is used to justify censorious acts, like no-platforming at universities and getting people fired from jobs or kicked off courses. If certain words are violence, and the only reasonable justification for violence is self-defence, then offensive words can be met with physical violence.
Another common phrase is ‘speech has consequences’, trotted out in response to anyone who dares defend free speech. It is a rather sneaky argument used to justify hate speech laws, cancel culture, and sometimes even real violence. Those who use it mean that offensive speech should be punished, but when challenged on this authoritarian belief they accuse the free speech defenders of being opposed to all criticism of speech. Will Smith had every right to be upset about Chris Rock’s joke, and to criticise him for it in his speech, but he did not have the right to assault him.
There is a suggestion the whole thing was staged. Even if this were true, which seems unlikely, it does not make it any better. It still sends out the awful message that speech, and ultimately certain thoughts, can and should be met with a smack. It would be particularly surprising for a comedian to be involved in such a pro-censorship stunt. The implications of this event for comedy are chilling, as it sends the message that even comics should be careful what they say, because someone could invade the stage and attack them for doing their job.
Many are defending Will Smith, arguing he was right to slap Chris Rock. I of course disagree with them and am offended by their belief that violence is a justifiable response to a joke. My disagreement with their ridiculous belief does not mean I can punch them. I can argue with them and criticise them because that is how we are supposed to deal with disagreement. Free speech means we get to disagree and even offend without fearing for our freedom, our livelihoods, or our physical safety. And that is bigger than one comedian, because if that rule doesn’t apply to Chris Rock, it doesn’t apply to you either.