Few believed the Oscars had many more missteps to make in its 94 year history, which seems to have doubled down on its controversy count in recent years. The Oscars delivered, as usual not in what was planned, but in what transpired with the famous slap that overtook the Moonlight/ La La Land fiasco by a country mile. On Sunday, society witnessed such a raw and primal interaction in real time, so perhaps it’s a poignant moment to reflect when a slap says something purer and truer than anything a speech ever could.
In one moment, everything changed. That snarl, that posturing adrenaline-driven strut on stage, that instinctual primal growl from the wings was nothing short of fascinating to watch live. That slap represented an inflection point, an exemplary example of how modern discourse has developed, or in my opinion, has receded. After the altercation, it was immediately clear that a societal pact had been broken; you can’t slap someone because you feel like it, but that didn’t stop some people from trying to back it up.
I’ve previously explored how actors and directors are adept at creating narratives around their Oscar campaigns to give them the best chance of getting that statue. However most of these typically have publicists, budgets and studio influence behind them; I’ve never seen someone twist a narrative on their own as quickly as Smith did. It was eerily cult-like to hear that tearful speech loaded with broad, generic and self-congratulatory statements that helped only his own self interest. He continued to link his unacceptable outburst to a staunch defence of his family, driven by the devil who seemed to be hanging around backstage to ruin his highest moment. As the famed, low-ego director Pedro Almodovar observed after attending the ceremony, ‘you don’t defend or protect the family with your fists, and no, the devil doesn’t take advantage of key moments to do his work.’
The reaction of the audience to justify the action and jump to his defence, could have been written by George Orwell. We saw everyone who does not think of their own accord link this moment to an arbitrary cause. That focus on a group identity and linking an individual action as driven by a group cause is a dangerous road to follow, because in essence it assumes the individual doesn’t have free autonomous will to choose whether to act on an impulse or not.
While the Hollywood microcosm lapped it up, the turning point came when the public didn’t buy the justification. While everyone in that room got sucked in, those on the outside (with HD TV’s and playback features) got clarity. If nothing else, perhaps now people will cease from saying your words are violence, because they’re not. That slap very much was. Smith wasn’t protecting his wife in that moment, for whatever reason he was protecting himself and it was nothing more than an individual man’s instinctual outburst that is something so nuanced and intricate, that it could never serve a greater cause.
I would never wish for anyone to be cancelled, it’s not a mature way of looking at the world. I do wish Will Smith would come down to earth, and bring a few people down with him. To stop pontificating and jumping ship depending on which way the wind blows. To acknowledge that the slap was a result of something far deeper. To stop lying to himself. To stop lying to people with good will that want to link actions to causes in an ideological world that isn’t grounded in reality.
The discourse surrounding this event was meaningless and yet it was the most meaningful societal dialogue in a long time. We’re lucky as a society that we don’t know any other world but one in which we can say what we like, but even that appears to be eroding. There are some that have experienced other ways of life, like Yeonmi Park who put her life on the line escaping from North Korea, only to settle in the West, attend Columbia University and come out of the establishment disillusioned because the university’s strict PC culture, literature banning and restricted speech reminded her too much of her homeland.
Why is Western society intent on restricting that liberty? Why is everyone set on group identities and causes when they only partly resemble the lives we live and the choices we make? As an individual Will Smith made a mistake, and he should be able to say that, not dance around it.