Chivalry vs violence – the slap we weren’t expecting

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Last Monday, many of us who did not burn the late-night oil the night before, woke up to the furore over what some now characterise as “the slap heard around the world.”

The globe stood befuddled, gobsmacked by the act so outrageous that brushing it off at first glance as horrible acting, or an overall poor comedy sketch, was far more convenient than the reality.

Nevertheless, real or an elaborate act, the violence displayed by actor Will Smith when he struck actor/comedian Chris Rock during the Oscars reignited debates surrounding masculinity and a man’s role in a family, male trauma and society’s view of these issues.

One of the most robust arguments in support of Smith’s five fingered retort to Rock’s joke about his wife’s shaved head (Jada Pinkett Smith has alopecia, a condition that leads to hair loss), is that a man’s responsibility is to protect and provide for his family, with an emphasis in this case on – protect. Let us first address the big red table in the room and note that Smith’s actions in the name of protecting his wife’s image, in almost any form, over a joke at her or their marriage’s expense would raise an eyebrow or even two. Most definitely after his wife’s entanglement with August Alsina was laid bare in the public for all to see in 2020.  

Now, that is not to say that the scandal made Jada any less deserving of the protection of her husband, but as public figures who have invited all and sundry into their personal affairs in striking detail, certainly Will’s response in this moment was questionable to say the least.

Make no mistake, any man would empathise with Will, and there was something cathartic seeing a black man defend a black woman. Sitting in a room of your peers while a man “disrespects” your wife could be at minimum, disquieting. But violence is never the answer and the role of a man goes beyond just protecting and providing, and extends to being present, and we live in a world where women have demonstrated that they are more than capable to defend themselves.

Too often, fathers, even here in Antigua and Barbuda, are plucked from the lives of their loved ones and thrown behind bars because in an instant, they reacted violently to perceived verbal “disrespect.” Bear in mind, the average man cannot protect or provide from behind bars of from beyond the grave. While every individual must measure what value they place on a bruised ego or hurt feelings or any other perceived threat, certainly the weight of their absence in the lives of their children, spouse and extended family must be prominent factors in the balance.

Furthermore, it is curious that Will was able to approach the podium, slap Rock (an icon himself), walk back to his seat, yell profanities and refuse to leave when asked. It was even more alarming that, shortly thereafter, he received a standing ovation after winning the Oscar for best actor. While many have questioned what would have happened if another person made that joke – what if it was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson or a Caucasian individual? – alternate realities that provoke their own complex discussions surrounding bullying and race, I wonder if the seemingly muted response to the ‘Wild Wild West’ actor was yet another example of the normalisation of black-on-black violence. With ‘respectability politics’ aside, watching two men of colour who are legends and role models in their own right at the centre of this kerfuffle was saddening. The way the story dominated what would have otherwise been a celebration of black excellence was even more disheartening.

Conflict resolution among men of colour in the US, in Antigua and Barbuda, and throughout the Caribbean remains a critical issue. Both men have been public about their childhood traumas with Will explaining the impact domestic abuse has had on his life, and Rock speaking to the effects of being bullied as a child has had on his development. These facts remind us that as a society, helping men to unpack and work through difficult emotional issues cannot continue to be ignored.

There must be a concerted effort to raise whole men, who are able to identify their hurt and address them effectively, such that these displays of aggression do not surface in domestic and other forms of violence.

Finally, wherever you stand on this nuanced issue, the slap that has played on a loop for all to see for the past week has definitely left a bitter taste in our mouths. It is even easier to pontificate on a situation like this from the comfort of our smartphones and key boards. Furthermore, debates on these issues in a small island context can sometimes feel forced and performative, but I invite us to take the time to see the parallels in our own lives and societies at large. We are all charged to be circumspect in  calling out acts of violence, even when gift-wrapped in valour or chivalry. We can seek to explain and perhaps even empathise upon reflecting on the violent act; however, we should never ignore or excuse it. Falling short of this responsibility to hold men accountable for such actions has already led to many seeking to justify domestic violence – a woman deserves to be hit if she embarrasses her husband or other forms of violence. It is almost an unspoken rule in our communities that if another individual insults a man’s mother or sister then the just reaction is ‘throwing some hands.’

However, consider, if you will, what type of world we would live in if the acceptable response to being offended is a slap, I posit that many of us would find ourselves in a sour state frequently, having run out of cheeks to turn. Moreover, consider the conversations we would be having if Chris Rock had retaliated with a broadside of his own.

Yes, there are more issues of great importance in government and politics that could have been put into focus in this editorial. But these lightning rod issues often serve as barometer that gauges how far we have come as a society. We do not presume to have all the answers to the questions that have been raised on account of this incident, however, we do hope that in this complex coil of concerns and confusion surrounding this topic, that we find the teachable moments even though they may be difficult to find, and ultimately that this incident serves as an example of what restorative justice could become over time, and suggestions of what conflict resolution ought to look like.

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