In today’s fast paced media cycle, the Will Smith controversy feels like it happened ages ago. But lessons can and must be learned.
Smith has since apologised to both the Academy and personally to Chris Rock, but the shock waves have reverberated far beyond those crazy 24 hours.
This episode sparked conversations worldwide about the inexcusability of violence and the horrendous message Smith’s actions sent to his hundreds of millions of followers worldwide.
But perhaps the most alarming message came from Smith’s son, Jaden. Immediately following his father’s physical assault against Rock, Jaden Smith tweeted the words “And that’s how we do it”. Reading that was heartbreaking.
Values are caught not taught. Our children learn much more from our behaviour than they do from our words. Telling our kids not to text while driving becomes meaningless if parents do it themselves. And telling our kids not to use violence becomes a vacuous statement if the parents raise their hand against another human being. I sincerely hope that Will has since had a long conversation with his kids about his violent outburst.
To be clear, Chris Rock is no angel. Mocking another person’s illness is reprehensible and according to Judaism doing so violates many Biblical commandments. In fact, the whole notion of “roasting” others will never be sanctioned in Torah law even though it’s become socially acceptable in modern culture. But Will Smith’s reaction was utterly unacceptable as evidenced, among many things, by the outrage it sparked.
Smith needs to do far more than apologise to make amends for his behaviour. Although that sounds preachy, the reality is that according to Jewish teachings, leaders are held to a higher account than the rest of the population. Moses was banned from entering Israel because he hit the rock (no pun intended to Smith hitting Chris Rock) instead of talking to it. Moses didn’t hurt anyone through his actions so why such a harsh punishment? Because, to paraphrase our Sages, “G-d judges leaders to a hair’s breadth”.
Smith has 62 million followers on Instagram and 111 million on Facebook. His reach and fame is gargantuan. He has in the past used his influence for so much good, so why has there been such unrelenting outrage over one terrible mistake for which he’s already apologised? Theories will vary but my sense is that the world recognises the enormous privilege that comes with fame, fortune and power, and wants those who possess these to live a life worthy of such blessings.
Sadly, Hollywood elites are far from immune from this kind of behaviour despite Hollywood projecting itself as one of the most liberal minded and progressive cities in the world. Indeed. Hollywood as a whole vociferously decried the election of Donald Trump because of his misogynistic behaviour yet so many of its famous actors and actresses turned a blind eye and even defended Harvey Weinstein after the shocking rape allegations against him first emerged.
For all the social justice tweets and virtue signalling coming from the rich and famous in Tinseltown, many of its inhabitants appear to have selective amnesia when it comes to calling out one of their own.
Case in point, in 2002 boxing champion Floyd Mayweather was convicted of two counts of domestic violence and one count of misdemeanour battery for which he received a six-month suspended sentence. In 2004, he was given a one-year suspended jail sentence and ordered to undergo counselling for “impulse control” after being convicted of two further counts of misdemeanour battery against two women, and on December 21, 2011, a judge sentenced Mayweather to serve a further 90 days in the county jail for beating his former girlfriend. These convictions were well publicised at the time.
This didn’t stop a star studded line up from filling the front row stadium seats at Mayweather’s 2017 blockbuster fight against Conor McGregor, at what was dubbed the fight of the century.
Tragically, those women who were bruised and battered by the man these stars paid good money to watch didn’t elicit from them quite the same adoration. It’s not just hypocrisy. It’s a disgrace.
Our Sages teach us that we all have a responsibility to change our environment for the better. The best way to do this is to start with ourselves. Rejecting violence in all its forms (except obviously in self defence) and calling out violence when we see it. Silence emboldens the perpetrator thus bystanders become complicit in the act.
Will Smith was justifiably hurt about the joke at his wife’s expense. But life can be cruel and we need to teach our children that when life throws us curve balls, violence is never the answer.
Yaakov Glasman is Senior Rabbi of the St Kilda Hebrew Congregation and President of the Rabbinical Association of Australasia.
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