I don’t think Will Smith was (entirely) wrong

Unless you have been living in an ashram, you have probably heard that Will Smith smacked Chris Rock at the Oscars because he said an insensitive joke about his wife (Jada Smith’s) baldness.

I have to admit, I don’t think Will Smith’s reaction was outrageous. I have been shocked at how the unanimous discussion is about how horrible of a person Will Smith has turned out to be.

I’ve been mulling over the situation compulsively, and despite my looming exams, I can’t help but write about it from a psychological perspective.

First:

I think the outrage and confusion surrounding the Chris Rock / Will Smith drama is a simple misunderstanding of the emotional gravity of alopecia. In the psychological literature, people (especially women) with alopecia report feelings of grief and distress akin to those with terminal illnesses, like stage 4 cancer.

Imagine watching your wife’s deepest and most harrowing insecurity being ridiculed on the public stage for millions of people to see—in Hollywood of all places, where appearance is a woman’s penultimate currency.

It’s hard for an outsider to truly comprehend the emotional experience of alopecia; of seeing your hair, your “crowning glory” slowly fall away without the ability to stop it. Granted, Chris Rock may have been unaware of the fact that it was a medical condition. And, it’s probably never okay to hit someone. (I will refrain from saying violence is *never* the answer, because we can immediately think of many situations (like self-defence) where it is often the only answer.)

Second:

The Oscars are a time of heightened emotional arousal, especially if you are nominated for an award. Will was already at an all time emotional high—likely emotionally unstable—as he was potentially going to receive an Oscar. In the world of the rich and famous, that is one of the highest possible awards. So from the start, Will was not necessarily inhabiting his frontal lobe, the cerebral seat of wisdom. When we are gripped by strong emotions, we are simply not able to make highly rational choices or deliberate between our options. Which leads us to point 3…

Third:

It is a myth that Will Smith could have acted better, that he could have acted differently. Being able to analyze one’s options to responding to conflict is easy when we are emotionally removed from it. A simple example: we can all say that we’d eat a salad instead of a cookie if we were on a diet; we can imagine our options—but actually being on a diet and then smelling freshly baked cookies is a whole other story. How many of us cave in, and eat the cookie when we’re hungry, once we’re actually faced with that decision?

Fourth:

No one knows what it was like for Will to watch Jada suffer for months on end. She was probably at her very lowest, feeling helpless, distressed, angry, sad, lifeless, etc. Just read the reports of women suffering from alopecia to get an idea of what that would be like, to watch your woman go through something that is outside of both of your control.

Fifth:

A man’s evolutionary instinct is to provide and protect. Will saw his wife hurt. His immediate impulse (again, propelled by the reptilian/primitive part of his brain and NOT his deliberating, wise frontal lobe) was to defend his wife.

Sixth:

A man’s immediate impulse to defend translates to a particular one of the following flight/flight responses (the four F’s as we call them: fight, flight, freeze, reproduce). Will was in one mode and one mode only: FIGHT.

Seventh:

The “Will Smith” we know is a combination of his genes/environment and his ability to deliberate and make choices. In this situation, Will was hijacked by an evolutionary impulse to defend his wife by fighting Chris Rock. When he could see that he was wrong and resume his full cerebral capacity, he apologized.

Conclusion: Hitting Chris Rock was not right, but it was understandable.


References

Reid, E. E., Haley, A. C., Borovicka, J. H., Rademaker, A., West, D. P., Colavincenzo, M., & Wickless, H. (2012). Clinical severity does not reliably predict quality of life in women with alopecia areata, telogen effluvium, or androgenic alopecia. Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology66(3), e97-e102.

Tucker, P. (2009). Bald is beautiful? The psychosocial impact of alopecia areata. Journal of Health Psychology14(1), 142-151.

Cartwright, T., Endean, N., & Porter, A. (2009). Illness perceptions, coping and quality of life in patients with alopecia. British Journal of Dermatology160(5), 1034-1039.

Chiang, Y. Z., Bundy, C., Griffiths, C. E. M., Paus, R., & Harries, M. J. (2015). The role of beliefs: lessons from a pilot study on illness perception, psychological distress and quality of life in patients with primary cicatricial alopecia. British Journal of Dermatology172(1), 130-137.

Davis, D. S., & Callender, V. D. (2018). Review of quality of life studies in women with alopecia. International journal of women’s dermatology4(1), 18-22.

2 thoughts on “I don’t think Will Smith was (entirely) wrong

  1. Yes, the Oscars seem to be a platform where nominees are in a highly-charged emotional state. However, his actions were still incorrect from a moral standpoint.

    Evolutionary correctness and moral correctness seem to be two different positions, but in the case of setting an appropriate example for the audience and all who have grown to respect Will, moral correctness is the most important factor here.

    Unfortunately, Will did not act in a morally correct way in this instance.

    There’s much more to the story here, keeping in mind that Will and Jada have a rough relationship.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Absolutely, I agree that from a moral standpoint his actions were wrong. My analysis describes the mechanisms underlying why he was incapable of acting morally in this situation — and why he therefore acted irrationally, in a way he otherwise might not have. What do you think? Do you feel he could have acted differently despite being in the grip of strong emotions?

      Like

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