It was the slap shown round the world. At the Oscars, Philly native Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock after the comic made an ableist joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who suffers from an autoimmune disorder that causes total hair loss, among other things.
I was live-tweeting the Oscars and at first was unsure if this was a scripted bit or not.
In the days since The Slap — for which Smith has apologized to Rock, the Academy, his family and others — everyone who witnessed the incident (and many who did not) have weighed in on it, including many people who should have remained silent.
One of the most prevalent takes on Twitter and in the numerous think pieces since about The Slap has been that “violence is always wrong.”
Or is it? Is violence sometimes necessary, as Malcolm X once suggested, for oppressed people? Weren’t many people advocating “punching Nazis” throughout the white supremacist Trump years? Didn’t we talk obsessively as a nation about killing Osama bin Laden after 9/11?
Certainly the uprising in Ukraine signals that fighting back against repressive regimes is essential to survival. Hasn’t mainstream media presented each violent action by Ukrainians against the invaders as heroic?
So not all violence is wrong, is it?
I am not conflating Smith’s slap with fighting totalitarianism nor with Malcolm X’s complex philosophy about violence as a response to oppression and oppressive regimes. Smith has explained his actions; this is not a story about those actions, but rather a story about violence as a construct, as a weapon, as a theory. I am talking about violence in ways which have been largely missed in all the many “violence is always wrong” stories in recent days.
Collectively, Americans don’t actually believe that violence is always wrong. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the majority of Americans have been calling on President Biden for a violent response to Putin’s assault and polls show that most Americans feel Biden’s pacifism has been too restrained.
Another truth is that America is the most violent country in the world that isn’t actually a rogue state, with over 500 million guns. In 2020 there were more than 40,000 gun deaths and more than a quarter million shootings.
I live in a violent North Philly neighborhood in a violent city: As of March 30, Philadelphia has the highest homicide rate of any big city, surpassing Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. In the past five years three men have been shot to death right outside my house. There are bullet holes in my dining room and living room windows that we have chosen to never repair.
In the days since the Oscars, which were noteworthy for so many other reasons, I’ve been thinking about the nature of violence and if it is indeed “always wrong” and also if all violence is the same or if there are gradations. Some fairly hysterical Hollywood voices — all white — stated that Smith should have been arrested; we know America likes to call the cops on Black people. One tweet said if Smith had slapped Betty White, he could have killed her. Betty White, dead since December.
Framing Smith as a violent predator whose uncontrolled rage would have caused him to hit a tiny 100 year old white woman highlights how the incident tapped into racist tropes about Black men, while the initial joke exemplified the abuse Black women are expected to endure in our society, no matter what their status. We all witnessed the incalculably abusive interrogation of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson by GOP senators. Wasn’t that violence?
Bernice King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., made perhaps the most telling comment on Twitter. She wrote “Please remember how outraged you are about violence right now when I share about poverty, racism in healthcare, and the prison industrial complex this week.”
And violence takes many forms: Physical, sexual, verbal, psychological, legislative, economic, political. Certainly the assault on LGBTQ people, especially LGBTQ youth, by the GOP like the Don’t Say Gay law, is violence, because its impact is harmful.
I have been a victim of physical and sexual violence. I have written about being severely injured by a serial rapist. I have had a gun held on me several times while reporting news stories.
I’ve reported on a lot of violence over my years as a journalist, including major murder cases like Eigil Dag Vesti, Rebecca Wight, Sakia Gunn, Matthew Shephard, Brandon Teena, Britney Cosby, Crystal Jackson and Molly Olgin, as well as others who never made national headlines.
I have written extensively about corrective rape of lesbians in the U.S. and elsewhere and about honor killings of lesbians. I’ve detailed my own experience of being forced to endure the brutality of conversion therapy, which tortures gay and trans people and remains legal in all but a few countries, including the U.S.
And I have interviewed countless victims of violence — victims of rape, domestic violence, hate crimes, homelessness, survival sex, poverty, incarceration. As a college student I was the lead witness in Philadelphia’s first federal police brutality trial, after witnessing a Black man, William Cradle, being beaten by police. That case led me into journalism as a career.
How we view violence often has to do with our gaze. My female gaze, my queer activist gaze, my disabled gaze, my white woman living in a poor Black neighborhood gaze, my journalist who has covered hundreds of stories of violent crimes gaze, my Socialist political journalist who has reported from several different countries gaze — all inform my view of violence.
Those vantage points make me think there are points at which we are called upon to fight violence with violent resistance — even when we have been taught “all violence is wrong.” What if the bystanders recording the lynching of George Floyd by police had, together, rushed those officers? At the very least, it would have gotten the knee off his neck and might have saved his life.
What if those perpetrating the violent attempted coup against the U.S. on January 6, 2020 had succeeded? Wouldn’t many of us have felt the need to take up violent resistance against a rogue state and leader?
The nature of violence is a heady one for Americans to contemplate in a nation with a genocidal history as violent as ours. It was only March 29 that the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act was finally signed into law. Had Emmett Till not been murdered a month after his 14th birthday, he would be Joe Biden’s age now.
So when we say “all violence is wrong,” we must remember that the State, the Church, systemic racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and ableism are all violent constructs. Resistance to those constructs may, at some point, demand violent uprising in response, as it has in our collective past. If nothing else, The Slap should remind us that not all violence is the same, not all perpetrators of violence are the same and the privileges and oppressions each of us carries within us should challenge our concept of violence and all its manifestations.