Michael Brenner gives in to the impulse to say a few things about that celebrity incident of the century.
They say that to experience dangerous adventure is to become addicted to the thrill — the rush of adrenalin and the intoxicating exhilaration. Somebody suggested to me that publishing an essay that denounces the country’s self-described best and brightest — as well as the many who passionately share their beliefs —provides an approximation.
Well, in fact, it doesn’t. Too little is at risk, the expectations too low and the demonstration that personal ties are fragile no longer is revelatory after doing this for 12 years. Still, I can’t help wondering exactly what those powerfully emotional experiences, such as those felt in combat, are like.
So, I am giving in to the impulse to say a few things about that celebrity incident of the century that has aroused the American public as nothing else has since the Bill Clinton & Monica Lewinsky escapade.
I refer to: the “Slap Heard ‘Round the World” — soon to be a major motion picture which will make the event really real (especially if the main protagonists play themselves).
The Slap is one of those happenings whose after-life stirs us and intrigues us more than the act itself. It lacked the vivid drama that would have galvanized us all had former President Donald Trump put Nancy Pelosi — House minority leader at the time — in a lethal stranglehold at the climax of his last address to Congress; or if Sen. Cory Booker had body-slammed Republican colleague Ted Cruz on the floor of the Senate hearing room.
All we saw was a well-dressed gentleman get up from his seat, walk toward some loose-lipped vulgar comedian and strike him on the cheek with so little force that viewers couldn’t tell whether it was just pantomime. Athletes cuff each other more forcefully as friendly signs of congratulations.
The Storm Broke
But, then the storm broke. You’re all familiar with the gory details. However, you may have missed the psychologizing in reputable places by alleged professionals that offer complex explanations of Hollywood star Will Smith’s behavior by probing speculatively into his childhood, adolescence, associated trauma and suppressed violent emotions. Where is the Goldwater/Louis II/George III/ Nero/ Caligula rule when we need it?
A few facts might help us make sense of this:
- Chris Rock, the comedian, poked fun at the buzzcut hairstyle of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith; comparing her to Demi Moore’s character in the 1997 action film of the same name, GI Jane. Rock said “Jada, I can’t wait for GI Jane 2,” prompting the actress to roll her eyes.
- Pinkett Smith has long suffered from alopecia and discussed the medical condition as the reason for shaving her head last year. Alopecia is an auto-immune disorder that causes hair loss.
- There is history to this. In 2016, Rock hosted the Oscars and joked about Pinkett Smith and her husband boycotting over #OscarsSoWhite, “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties,” Rock said during his opening monologue. “I wasn’t invited.” Hilarious – right off the bathroom wall of a Greyhound bus station.
It is intrinsic to human nature to react the way that Will Smith did. Millions of years of evolution explain the emotion and the impulse to aggress the offending party. Survival, and — more important — the perpetuation of the individual’s genes — require that a mate be protected from danger; for procreation, for nurturing the young, for protecting the young.
That even holds for females who, in a number of mammalian species, will come to the aide of their male mates (e.g. lions and hyenas, wolf packs; check the You Tube clips). There is not a mammal on the planet that doesn’t share those instincts – including homo sapiens. Social history, observation and experience also tell us that this natural behavioral reaction has not been suppressed in organized communities, including modern ones.
Fights between males provoked by one of them either threatening to seize a mate, to hurt a mate, or even insult a mate normally triggers a hostile response. Often the female joins the fray, as happens in the wild among other species.
The behavioral changes imposed by the authority of organized society, and the rules that it seeks to instill in the populace, is twofold. First, it creates alternatives to an aggrieved party’s physically hostile response: call the cops, file a legal complaint, recourse to other non-violent actions (economic, social exclusion, destruction of property). Second, it strengthens inner inhibitions about expressing intense emotions (anger) through violence by stigmatizing it, i.e. inducing feelings of shame or guilt.
Our essential selves, though, have not changed since Neolithic or even Paleolithic times when societies were much smaller and simpler. Any conceivable genetic precursor to Chris Rock would have been weeded out very early on. Over most of the past 5,000 years, in every culture, such a person would not have gotten far into adult life without being punched, stabbed, or shot — on multiple occasions if he survived long enough.
A Previous Era
There are many who have personal memories of a period in American life when an aggression reaction of the Smith sort could be expected in analogous circumstances; in some settings, almost certainly; in others possibly.
In none, would angry, hostile emotions be hidden. One might succeed in limiting the reaction to verbal violence; or, the woman might try to restrain the man — not because she didn’t want to see the “comedian” laid out on the floor, but because she was anxious that the man not get into trouble and/or cause them both to suffer in some way.
Personal experience: In the calm residential urban neighborhood in which I grew up, brawling was not at all common. And the local equivalents of Mr. Rock didn’t exist.
There was one revealing incident, however, related by a teenage friend. His father was driving his wife home from a doctor’s appointment that concerned a serious gynecological condition.
At a light, the driver of a car in the next lane shouted some vulgar obscenities at her (why?). Her husband, a burly man, got out and smacked the guy two or three times — leaving him bleeding over the steering wheel. What is notable is not the act itself but the reaction of others who heard about.
The dozen or so of us who heard the account were unanimous that our pal’s father had done the right thing, and that the guy he beat up deserved what he got. I recall that our well-educated parents had the same reaction. The only concern expressed was that he might get into trouble.
Admittedly, the incident did not occur at the annual meeting of the high school PTA. nor was it nationally televised. I have no doubt, however, if the provocation and reaction occurred in a public venue, there still would have been no fierce denunciations, no righteous scorning, no 10-year exclusion from future PTA meetings.
And if there were any psychologist/psychiatrists around, none would have written a long letter to the local newsletter explaining to us that Mr. X’s unseemly behavior was telling evidence that he had never overcome the trauma of the abuse he must have received as a child or the repressed fury dating back to his being kept out of the starting line-up in his middle school’s match against a rival school. Nor would they warn our parents to be on the lookout for tell-tale signs that we, too, might one day feel the uncontrollable fury to belt some insolent bastard.
In total candor, I have never spoken with a man whom I would suspect did NOT feel similar anger to what Will Snith did under analogous circumstances. I state this with circumspection since it is not a topic I can recall being discussed, or even mentioned on more than a very few occasions.
Contrary to beliefs held in some quarters, men do not spend their time together habitually exchanging views on how to beat up rivals or harass women.
Emotion Versus Action
It is imperative to separate the question of emotion from that of action. There are a host of elements that determine whether the former translate into the latter.
It is the former that is of greater interest since it is on that issue where the publicly stated consensus diverges from what we previously have understood as human nature and social interaction. Speaking personally as somebody who was a quasi-pacifist for most of my life, and who has had only two fights (both before the age of 10 and lasting 19 seconds in toto), I surely would have experienced the same emotions as Will Smith did and would have felt the impulse to do the clown-comedian some damage — however unlikely that I would have acted on it. I sure as hell wouldn’t have calmly smiled, chilled out and taken it as good fun in the spirit of the Oscar extravaganza.
In the eyes of many, that would have cast me as a throwback to a more primitive age. Someone who lacks the will to let a few million years of Nature stand in the way of a lighthearted lifestyle and a lucrative career. Someone who has not experienced the 21st Century Awakening as lifts the souls of the Hollywood crowd to their exalted Epicurean heights.
Finally, I’m struck by the relative silence of female activists. The few comments that I’ve run across join in the condemnation of Smith on the grounds that he acted as a macho who felt the need to “defend the weak little woman” = that outdated, pernicious, insulting notion. They don’t say how Jada should have reacted herself. Stay calm and shrug it off? or, walk up to Cox, kick him in the groin and then stuff the mike down his throat. Their reaction to that would have been fascinating to read.
Enough venting. I don’t want to be late for my scheduled visit to Gold’s gym where I work out on the heavy punching bag.
P.S. A few days after “processing” the incident (with or without a dictionary?), Rock made a public appearance. There, the entire audience stood to give him a thunderous round of applause. I would be indebted to anyone who can tell me what exactly it was that the crowd was applauding.
Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. [email protected]
The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.