Opinion: Will Smith should not be defined by his most common mistake

Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a New York-based journalist and author of OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind. follow him on twitter. The views expressed in this comment are his own. View more opinions on CNN.



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What’s it like to make up for a terrible mistake?

At last year’s Oscars, the nation shocked the nation when actor Will Smith burst onto the stage and slapped comedian Chris Rock, after Rock digging into Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who was battling hair loss due to alopecia. Because of the attack, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Board of Directors barred Smith from the Oscars for the next 10 years.

Slap was astounding, partly because of Smith’s reputation as a friendly family man, and partly because of his timing: Hollywood has been reckoning with male abuse and mistreatment over the past few years, though largely women. #MeToo movement. The slap was an extreme display of knightly male violence – a man defending his wronged wife by hitting another man who insulted her.

There may have been a time when Smith was widely applauded for his actions. Fortunately, this is not it. But now the question is not (was) not whether Smith was right. Whether it can get into the public eye and what it means to rectify the situation. Smith has recently resurfaced in the public eye, and how she handles herself is an illuminating window into American society’s inadequacies in violence and forgiveness.

Smith’s return to public life came with an interview with Trevor Noah on “The Daily Show” to promote his new film, “Emancipation,” the story of an enslaved man who not only escaped from his captors but was directly involved in his success. The abolitionist movement in the United States. Smith, of course, has a personal and financial interest in making the movie go well, which requires the public to go and watch it. But he also seems to take responsibility for his actions, describing the Oscar slap as a “terrible decision” and explaining that he’s been going through a difficult time personally – “it doesn’t justify my behavior at all,” he added. He said what hurt him the most was that his actions “made it difficult for other people”. And it’s like I understand the idea that they say hurting people hurts people.”

While Smith did not publicly apologize in his own Oscar speech shortly after the incident, he apologized multiple times for the slap and passed his apologies directly to Chris Rock. He was also clear that if the public didn’t want to forgive him, it was their prerogative. If someone isn’t yet ready to watch a movie featuring Smith, he told Fox 5 in Washington DC, “I would totally respect that and let their space not be ready.”

Smith’s violent response to The Rock is a huge problem in the United States, and is often made much worse by our massive oversupply of guns among the civilian population. We are a country in which too many people face violent deaths and that is often overly permissive to violence – and especially to gun violence.

But we are also a country that is still almost Puritanical in our desire to separate people into good and bad, which can be extremely cruel and unforgiving. Even though the number of people behind bars has decreased, we are imprisoning a larger portion of our population than anywhere else in the world, and that hasn’t made us any safer.

Here we are: doing little to prevent so much preventable deadly violence. But we often imprison people for extraordinarily long periods of bad (and often non-violent) acts with little or no planning for rehabilitation, treatment, or reintegration.

Will Smith losing his fans isn’t the same as locking someone and throwing away the key. But our punitive urges in our criminal justice system are also reflected in our cultural punitiveness and wildly inconsistent standards of behavior.

Smith’s slap at another man took him (rightly) months of scrutiny, despite his apology, and apart from that he appeared to be living an honest life. In other series, however, horrific celebrities return to the group or never get kicked out—just to cite two, guys like Chris Brown, who pleaded guilty to aggravated and suffered a string of violence for brutally beating his then-girlfriend, Rihanna. Since then, outrageous incidents have included numerous sexual assaults, harassment, and outrages, including accusations that he molested and raped women (he responded by selling “that bitch liar” T-shirts as well as denying the allegations) or accusations against men like former President Donald Trump. charges of misconduct (all denied).

That doesn’t mean we have to lower the bar for guys like Brown and Trump to beat the bar. It is to say that we must be thoughtful and consistent. Those who ignore the seriousness (with their actions and words) of harassment and ill-treatment of others do not deserve our attention, votes or money. People who are generally honest but who have made a terrible mistake, admit it, and try to fix it, are not entitled to universal and immediate forgiveness, but it should be met with an open mind. They shouldn’t be defined by the worst decision they’ve ever made, and they shouldn’t necessarily lose their livelihoods.

This can be a difficult balance to strike. But it is also dangerous to nurture an endless appetite for public shame, to allow no apology to be enough, and to take pleasure in the prostration of people before an unforgiving public.

Specifically, in Smith’s case, he made a mistake that he realized was dire. It is important to send and reinforce the message that violence is wrong. But it’s also important to emphasize that humans are fallible creatures, and that part of building the kind of society we want is not just to deter and punish violence, but to foster compassion, compassion, and empathy in the face of remorse. These gifts – grace, compassion, empathy – are fortunately unlimited resources. We can spread these around, including with Will Smith’s direction.

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