Almost certainly you are aware of an unfortunate incident which happened during the Academy Awards Ceremony’s broadcast last March. As the live audience and TV viewers around the world watched, actor Will Smith walked up to and slapped comedian Chris Rock who had been making amusing comments onstage. Mr. Smith’s action was unexpected and shocking because it wasn’t till afterwards it became clear that he attacked Mr. Rock because the comedian had made a joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s unusual appearance: she suffers from alopecia, a disease that prevents hair growth, so she is bald. Rock’s attempt to be funny caused Smith to physically attack him, and it was this act which triggered an immediate reaction around the world. It is certain Smith’s surprising act of violence will forever be associated with the prestigious Academy Awards Ceremony.
After this incident became well-known, there was a heated global argument as to who was in the wrong. Opinion is still divided on this issue: “The one who publicly insulted the victim is wrong” versus “No matter the reason, the one who used violence to respond is wrong.” I think that both are to blame. But in American society where discrimination and violence are ongoing social issues, it is no wonder that Smith’s physical assault was criticized by the public.
However, Rock’s verbal violence should not be overlooked. His remark made fun of Smith’s wife’s appearance because of a health issue she cannot control and which causes hair loss. The joke made light of the embarrassment suffered by all women who lose their hair for reasons beyond their control. So for many viewers, such remarks were absolutely unacceptable. There are people all over the world who suffer from the same disease, including children. When they heard Rock’s words, I think that they were also hurt, as if the joke was aimed at them as well.
Words play a very important role in our lives because they are indispensable to us every day. There is nothing like words that touch people’s minds. People can feel happy, joyful or healed by certain words. Then there are words which make people cry, feel sad or upset. Some words can even make people commit suicide. We know that they can have a powerful impact on our minds and hearts.
There is a Japanese saying: “Words are just like a knife.” This means that words which we use to communicate with others are as useful and convenient as a knife. But if words are used in the wrong way, they can hurt others and sometimes even ourselves much as a knife can. Therefore, we should really be as careful about how we use our words as we are whenever we handle a knife.
Even if I never meant to hurt anyone, if what I say pains another person, it went beyond just a joke. In the majority of bullying cases, the bully claims not to grasp that his teasing remarks were harmful, claiming, “It was just a joke!” and even forgetting what he had said. But if the victim bullied is distressed by those words, he can suffer from the emotional trauma as well as physical violence. Currently, discriminatory remarks or hate speech against LGBTQ or certain racial groups have been a serious social issue in American society. Just as in the incident at the Oscars, words can be as painful as a knife, ignoring the victim’s privacy and hurting him psychologically.
I have heard another opinion that Mr. Rock shouldn’t be blamed because he made such a joke without realizing that Jada Smith had a disease. When I was a college student, a teacher posed questions to our class like, “In Buddhism, which do you think is worse? A bad deed which the person knew he was committing? Or something he did which he did not realize was harmful?” Most of the students thought that the bad deed which someone knew he was committing was worse than an action that someone did not realize was wrong. But our teacher told us that we were all wrong. Certainly, the punishment and moral responsibility might be heavier for the one who did the bad deed, knowing that it was bad. But if that person realizes what he was did, he might have a greater awareness that what he did was not right. As a result, this awareness could eventually cause this person to feel regret or reflect upon his actions.
On the other hand, the person simply unaware that what he did was wrong would never be able to reflect on his actions and apologize for them. Is there anything more terrible than the ignorant man who isn’t aware of his own bad behavior? That is why Buddhism teaches us how problematic ignorance is.
We can all agree that Will Smith is a great actor with countless fans. For this reason, his rash behavior disappointed a lot of people. There must have been another way besides that violent slap to protest Rock’s ignorant remarks. It was a shock to witness Smith unable to control his anger.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist master, teaches us that when someone sets our house on fire, the first thing to do is to put out the fire quickly. This shows us if we are upset over something another person did and react angrily by using violence against him, it is as foolish as chasing after the arsonist before first putting out the fire in our house. In other words, we should avoid losing something important because of our anger.
It is also very important for each of us to recognize that Chris Rock’s ignorant words about Jada Pinkett Smith’s appearance were reprehensible even if he just wanted to make a joke. Not only physical violence, but words can also become painful weapons which can hurt people depending on how they are used. The result can even denigrate the speaker’s own personality and dignity.
This memorable incident occurred during the Academy Awards Ceremony which is the greatest annual celebration in the film world. I believe that what happened between Mr. Smith and Mr. Rock gave all of us an opportunity to consider the elimination of various types of violence. And I also gratefully suggest that on Oscar Night 2022, these two men each served as precious Boddhisattvas who unknowingly played out such difficult roles with one another so that we who observed their interaction can become awake to the importance of non-violence as emphasized in Buddhism.
Rev. Yushi Mukojima