What is the sound of one hand slapping?
A meditation on public mediation
Wham! With a single, open-handed hit, Will Smith turned an evening of celebration into a week of WTF — tragically overshadowing the culmination of his acting career. Adjusting his vest as he left the stage, he looked like so many Hollywood heroes walking toward the camera, unscathed despite the bomb exploding in the background. But last Sunday was no movie, and that shocking moment didn’t happen on a closed set. Millions of people unwittingly tuned into the Academy Awards, only to witness a public assault that would lay bare our society’s limp response to trauma made manifest. As it turns out, the sound of one hand slapping is a resounding disappointment.
Much has already been opined or polled about who did what and how it was handled on the spot. For me, there’s no better summation of the impact of this act than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s post: “Will Smith Did a Bad, Bad Thing.” So I’m not writing to weigh in on the situation itself, but to reflect on what is missing from the public conversation — real, unscripted dialogue among the parties involved about the issues involved. Instead of sensationalizing sound bites and right-versus-wrong encampments over the past week, media outlets could have provided a forum for remediation. Such a forum can still occur and, if it does, I hope it looks like this:
The Oscar fiasco was part of a public event featuring long-time public figures. It’s as good of a global audience-focused ‘teachable moment’ as any. We could all benefit from a public mediation to foster collective healing.
Though the altercation was of short duration, a lot of complexity went into the words and follow-up wallop — all of which should be addressed with Will Smith, Chris Rock, Jada Pinkett Smith, a neutral host and at least one expert in the following areas:
Like too many people, both Will Smith and Chris Rock have experienced childhood trauma in the form of physical violence. Such disruptive, formative experiences are undoubtedly difficult to shake, even into adulthood. A trauma counselor could help process root causes and triggers, then discuss methods that help transmute anger and guide people toward breaking the chain of generational abuse.
All of us have the potential for violence. Even those who seem to have little or no inclination for it have the capacity to do harm when enraged. An expert in nonviolent communication (NVC) could introduce the concept, principles and how to apply them in-situ before things escalate from smack-talk to face-smack. There could also be testimonials from motivational people who have transformed their anger into something productive, like a former gang member-turned-entrepreneur.
One of the most challenging issues of our time has been the polarization of nearly every public occurrence into an us-versus-them, mindset-solidifying slugfest. Drama may sell papers and products, but healthy discussion probes for understanding rather than encouraging anger or asserting ‘correctness.’ If we want to evolve rather than remain in situational stalemates, it will take active listening — hearing and considering viewpoints that differ and being willing to change what no longer serves the conversation.
As part of this segment, a panel of thought leaders could speak to the spectrums of nuanced themes that resurfaced during the slam, slap, speech and stories — response v. reaction, protection v. aggression, chivalry v. condescension, accountability v. deflection and stereotypes v. individual behavior. The implications of what happened, per Abdul-Jabbar’s elegant article, have deeper resonance than what was on the surface. Ideally, this forum would help course-correct assumptions before they become earworms for those who seek to reinforce negative perceptions of entire groups of people.
Ultimately, comedy is a First Amendment issue. Freedom of speech grants comedians a rare platform, unlike any other profession, where they can say things that are less acceptable in a non-entertainment context. Whether or not Rock knew about Pinkett Smith’s condition and if he crossed a line with his G.I. Jane jab are matters of opinion that are less resolvable than coming to terms with one’s own topical boundaries. A panel of comedians, comedy historians and Constitution scholars could discuss varying viewpoints, appropriateness and personal relationships with humor. The goal of their discussion would not be to define what’s acceptable, but to facilitate the realization that what’s funny for one may not be funny for another due to personal histories and perceptions.
Lastly, Pinkett Smith could use this opportunity to educate a wider audience about alopecia and its effects on the psyche. Earlier during the show, I had actually commented that I thought she looked badass — elegant, strong and fierce — but I didn’t know she had it or that millions of other women do, too. She could host a panel of doctors, stylists and people from various communities to discuss hair loss — from its origins to emotional coping techniques to approaches to being out in public.
Now that’s how we do it.