Jesus is going to come back and we’re going to ask him about The Slap aren’t we. He’ll be standing there, resplendent in his all his glory, preparing to feed the poor and clothe the naked, when some jamoke on an iPhone will walk up and say, “Did you see this GIF edit where it’s totally Timothée Chalamet instead of Chris Rock?”
Yes, our long national slapmare has now entered its third week and it shows no sign of breaking. Viral phenomena usually subside pretty quickly but Will Smith’s front-hand to Chris Rock at the Oscars has proven to have legs. To show how deep the mania runs, last week I saw an electoral map breaking down which states support Smith versus Rock based on Twitter data. Surprisingly, Arizona rejected Old Testament justice in favor of Rock, though there are rumors of ballot irregularities in Maricopa County.
Elsewhere, The Slap has been held up as evidence of greater divisions in our society. Over at the Atlantic, Jemele Hill sees a fault line running through black America and white America, with blacks more inclined to support Smith and whites throwing in with Rock. Other pundits have bemoaned the death of tolerance, with Howard Stern drawing a line from Will Smith to Donald Trump. The Slap is said to be an expression of honor culture, cancel culture, manhood, toxic masculinity; it’s even, according to one essay so meta it probably tore a hole in the space-time continuum, the end of hot takes as we know it.
And, of course, there was the Washington Post columnist who declared that Will Smith had slapped all African Americans.
Such is internet culture, where every clearing of a throat must be blown up into a greater point that reinforces our confirmation biases. My own opinion on The Slap is that I don’t have an opinion. That isn’t to say I don’t have opinions; I just don’t think Smith’s annoyance with Rock means a civil war is about to break out or we’ve entered the last stage of historical materialism.
Since the story has been memed beyond recognition, let’s recall what actually happened with the celebrity glamor stripped away. A man tells a poor-taste joke about another man’s wife. The second man laughs along only to realize that his spouse, who is with him, took it badly. Determined to defend her honor, he storms up to the first man and slaps him. The jokester is clearly surprised yet manages to smooth things over, while the slapper later says he was acting out of love and apologizes.
Not a great display all around, to be sure, and the slapper shouldn’t escape the consequences of his actions. But it’s also hard to think of a more normal, pan-racial, universally human moment. Even Smith’s now-infamous line to Rock — “keep my wife’s name out of your f**king mouth!” — was more natural than half the dialogue Hollywood dreams up for him (imagine if he’d screamed “you did not shoot that green shit at me!”). Yet for some reason every solitary human being is now required to have an opinion on this. The latest is that rapper Fat Joe has weighed in. At last, we can all sleep soundly at night.
Contrast the normalcy of Rock and Smith with another slappable comic and another performance artist, respectively, Jimmy Kimmel and Marjorie Taylor Greene. Last week, Taylor Greene calmly reasoned on Twitter that all Republicans who voted for Ketanji Brown Jackson’s Supreme Court confirmation were “pro-pedophile.” Kimmel then joked on his late-night show that Will Smith ought to slap her. Taylor Greene then reported Kimmel to the Capitol Police. Kimmel then called Taylor Greene a sociopath.
All that from a single slap. And therein lies the point. Is it possible, just possible, that the way we extrapolate from scandals has become more scandalous than the scandals themselves? That the real problem is that we turn everything into outrage chum that causes us to behave like monsters? That by making this incident about us rather than Will Smith and Chris Rock, we’re being not socially analytical but narcissistic? That I’m contributing to the problem just by writing this column?
As I now plunge headfirst into an existential crisis, Will Smith has just been banned from the Oscars for the next ten years. We’ve had a lot of bad Slap takes over the last fortnight, but that just might be the worst one of them all.