In the Woody Allen movie, “Radio Days,” the narrator recalls how his parents could argue over any subject.
“Wait a minute,” the father yells at the mother, “are you telling me you think the Atlantic is a greater ocean than the Pacific?”
I feel like we’ve reached that point in American culture, where any event — even the ones that don’t appear to have two sides — will send people running to their ideological corners.
It’s been one week since the actor Will Smith rose from his seat at the Oscars, walked up to presenter Chris Rock and, in front of 16 million viewers in America and a worldwide television audience, slapped him hard in the face.
Smith, annoyed by a joke Rock had made about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, and her hair, then returned to his seat and screamed a profanity-laced warning at Rock. Twice.
Time hasn’t changed that event. You can watch it every hour. It is always the same. A man assaulting another man with no physical provocation.
It is a violation of the law in every state. It is certainly a violation in California, where the incident took place. But to date there have been no legal consequences.
Instead, not only was Smith permitted to stay in his seat, but a half-hour later he was given the Oscar for Best Actor, was embraced by three other movie stars, delivered a long speech, and received a standing ovation from the Hollywood audience.
Later that night, at a party, he danced and sang to his own music with the Oscar in his hands. Most people, having done what he’d done — before that many witnesses — would likely have been at a police station.
One incident through this many prisms?
But the lack of legal action by the Academy Awards people (they claimed they asked Smith to leave but he refused) is hardly a shock: Hollywood isn’t very good at policing its own. Especially when the party in question is a huge star who makes a lot of money for those he works with.
The split in public opinion was more surprising. Yes, many were appalled. A large number called Smith’s behavior unacceptable. Even Hollywood stars like Jim Carrey railed against the incident. Carrey told an interviewer, “I was sickened by the standing ovation.”
But while the majority condemned Smith’s violent act, there was plenty of notable and vocal dissent.
One New York Times writer said, “It seems like the stress of having to be Will Smith for a period of time just got the best of him.”
Another Times writer said, “The primary takeaway for me was … to see a Black woman being defended, especially after a week of trials with Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson.”
A Forbes writer claimed “this incident isn’t a simple one. It has many different, complicated layers and nuances” including “The significance of/sensitivity around hair and hair issues within Black culture.”
The mayor of New York City praised Smith as an iconic figure and said, “I think he was having a bad day.”
Actress Tiffany Haddish told People magazine it was “the the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. … When I saw a Black man stand up for his wife, that meant so much to me.”
Not to be outdone, Smith’s son Jaden tweeted out, “And That’s How We Do It.”
Meanwhile, a CNN commentator likened it to a “psychological study of how (President) Trump got normalized.”
An open-and-shut case
Now, it’s hard to imagine a starker example of improper behavior than what Smith did. No matter what the joke (even allowing for the fact that Pinkett Smith has alopecia, which can cause hair loss and makes Rock’s joke even less funny) a person can’t just walk up and smack another person in the face. At a time when hugging a shoulder can get you fired, a clear, violent smack to the kisser should be a no-brainer in the right and wrong department.
Smith himself acknowledged this in the aftermath, saying in a statement on Monday, “I was out of line and I was wrong.” There’s the word. Wrong. On Friday, Smith resigned from the Academy, calling his own actions “shocking, painful and inexcusable.”
And yet there were still people who wanted to frame this in political, racial, historical or Trumpian terms. They opined in articles and podcasts about the nuances of this act.
There’s no nuance. It’s wrong. You can’t do it. You can debate the punishment, or whether Smith should return his Oscar, or whether asking Chris Rock if he wanted to press charges should have been the determining factor, but you can’t debate the action.
As Kareem Abdul Jabbar wrote in a post: “With a single petulant blow, (Smith) advocated violence, diminished women, insulted the entertainment industry, and perpetuated stereotypes about the Black community.”
That’s a whole lot of wrong, not a whole lot of nuance. We are entitled to our opinions, of course, and opinions always vary. But if we can watch a man, over a joke, walk up and assault another man and be admired, justified and even applauded, then we’ve lost our compass. We might as well be arguing over the Pacific versus the Atlantic. Because we truly are oceans apart.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Follow him on Twitter @malbom