Will Smith responding angrily to joke by Chris Rock

Opinion: Why we can’t agree on the Will Smith slap.

Disclosure: This is not an argument for or against the actions of either Will Smith or Chris Rock. It is a discussion about trauma.

That slap. Seen and heard across the world, and the words after: 

“Keep my wife’s name out of your f*cking mouth.”

“Keep my wife’s name out of your f*cking mouth.”

But it wasn’t about his wife, or a joke, or the pressure of the night, or at least not ‘just’ any of those things. It was about Will. And maybe the real reason for his reaction is the same reason none of us can agree on whether what happened was right or wrong. 

As a person with an interest in mental health, I have been wondering since seeing his reddened eyes and thousand yard stare in the last meme of Will Smith after the now infamous Red Table Talk, if there was more to come. Having now read his autobiography, I’m of the opinion that as sudden as his altercation with Chris Rock at the Academy Awards seemed, Will Smith has been walking towards that stage for 44 years. 

 

Trauma

In his memoirs, on the very first page of the very first chapter, aptly titled ‘Fear’, Will Smith discusses childhood trauma. 

At just nine years old, he witnessed his father punching his mother so hard that she collapsed, spitting blood. He reflects that the moment has had a profound impact on who he is as a person, a topic he discusses in depth throughout the book. The last few sentences of the paragraph captured above are what stand out. A list of perceived failures, not based on what society thinks, because no one expects a nine year old boy to intervene in abuse between two adults. A failure by his own reckoning, a ‘moral injury’. Behaviour that rubs against our own deeply held sense of self, and of right and wrong. 

“For failing her in that moment. For failing to stand up to my father. For being a coward.”

So to his mind, the correct response would have been:

To save her at that moment. To stand up to his father. To be brave. 

When under threat, the thousands of years old part of our brains responds with fight, freeze, flight. We either face the danger, freeze or run away. When we are safe and calm we reflect on how we responded in the moment and experience any one of a range of emotions, some of the most prevalent being pride, guilt and shame.

Nine year old Will viewed his inaction to his mothers abuse as a source of guilt and shame. It doesn’t take much to imagine him making a personal vow to never let anything like that happen again. To never let fear hold him back from action. He made standing up for people and choosing action over inaction a deeply rooted part of his character. 44 years later, at an awards ceremony, he looked across a table and saw his wife in pain and made a decision.

Will Smith responding angrily to joke by Chris Rock

Hitting Chris Rock probably felt great in the moment. Nine year old Will most likely roared with redemption, but what about 53 year old Will?

In the wake of the Red Table talk in 2020, where he discussed his marriage with his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith, a spotlight was placed on who he was as a person behind the Fresh Prince persona. He became very real to a lot of people and built up a new following of fans for his candid conversations around mental health, relationships and facing your fears. Using platforms like Instagram and Tik-Tok he leaned into the difficult emotions that the discussion opened up, and people loved it.

Is it likely hitting Chris Rock in anger sits well with the morals and values of modern-day Will? Or did he wake up the morning after with new feelings of guilt and shame? His apology gives us some insight.

He stated: 

“Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive. My behaviour at last night’s Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable. Jokes at my expense are a part of the job, but a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally.

I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong. I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be. There is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness…

…I am a work in progress.”

A key part of working on your own mental health is recognising where your past experiences are affecting your behaviour day-to-day and figuring out if that serves you. 

Not all experiences will have a singularly negative impact, even if the experience itself was negative. Lots of PTSD sufferers talk about post-traumatic growth, where a negative experience has enriched their life by giving them new found respect for life and relationships. An example would be the sensation of your ‘life flashing before your eyes’ during a near death experience. While nearly dying is a negative, scary experience, figuring out what’s really important to you is a positive one and can move your life forwards in a good way. 

So maybe Will is thinking now about how a 44 year old trauma has shaped his morals and values and wondering if there is work to be done to resolve this? In his acceptance speech he said “Love makes you do crazy things”. No, Will. Trauma does. 

You might be reading this thinking “He doesn’t have to work on anything, I’d have hit him too”. You might be reading this thinking “Mental health be damned. He should be in prison”. The chances are your opinion is at least in some way related to your own experiences to violence and abuse. Just as Will’s perception of Chris Rock’s joke was related to his own experiences. 

If you’ve been assaulted or shamed in some other way in public, you’ll probably relate most closely to Chris’s complete vulnerability after being slapped. 

If you’ve wished a partner would stand up for you and have been let down, you’ll most likely view Will’s actions as heroic. 

If you’ve been a victim of domestic violence it is likely the line “love makes you do crazy things” sounds like an excuse for abuse.

If you’ve witnessed abuse at a young age and now consider sticking up for others a core part of your morals and values, you most likely think Will acted correctly. 

So what does that mean for this situation? Who’s right and wrong? That’s between the people involved, and probably nuanced enough that there is some blame on both sides. But what this event and the social media fallout after it proves is that our opinions on it are as much about who we are as it is about what happened.

You can learn more about childhood trauma in the Trauma Informed Veteran Aware Training available here: https://allcallsigns.org/courses/trauma-informed-veteran-aware-training-tivat/

 

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  1. Thanks for highlighting the ‘freeze’ element that is so often neglected from the supposed dichotomy of fight or flight! This article is a very thoughtful reflection on the incident and resonated a lot.

  2. As a child, and I can say throughout childhood, my parents argued a lot, drinking alcohol and they couldn’t solve their typical post WW II generation problems like letting the woman work on her own and not serving the family only in kitchen, in church or in bed. So we as children always had to stop the fighting between our adults, my sister and me. And as you mentioned, there wilk be scarves on your body and in your soul and you will carry them as long as you live. And if there is no chance to free yourself from this pain like a therapy, you will suffer. And as a result you won’t be able to grow up your children without showing them what you have learned in your growing up, in your education. Why is somebody becoming a soldier just to experience how painful it is? Why is Will Smith walking upstairs and slap him? Will Smith didn’t feel satisfied afterwards – his face showed us anger, fear and more of his inner feelings. I agree with the statement that Will was poked by something he experienced in past. And in this moment there was something he switched him on. It’s about courage in himself to react like he did and he didn’t think about it reasonably. He did it. No excuse but he did it. And remember his face afterwards. That’s it.

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