So, Will Smith and Chris Rock at the Oscars, eh?
Right now, you can’t hear yourself think over the sound of the internet breaking as people watch and then re-watch – probably several times and always open-mouthed – the moment when Hollywood A-lister Smith lopes over to the stage and hits Rock over an ill-considered gag about the actor’s wife.
Plenty – and I do mean plenty – has been said over the last week about the rights and wrongs of this unsavoury contretemps, and I’m not about to add my own fuel to that particular fire other than to say that to differing degrees both men were right and both men were wrong, and you need to judge for yourself the morality of each’s words and actions.
I have my own views on all of this, as I’m sure we all do, and the truth of the matter is that wherever you look on the breaking internet, you won’t find a single shred of consensus on the rights and wrongs of it.
No, to me the most interesting element of that whole explosive piece of television history is not whether it’s acceptable to make a joke of a health condition or to respond to said gag with violence.
It’s what’s going on with Will Smith, because (and as he has already said in his Instagram apology to Chris Rock on Monday evening), his was not the reaction of a right-minded, right-thinking individual.
Seeing someone strike another human being on a live television show being beamed around the world to billions of people is shocking enough.
But that sense of shock is amplified by a factor of 100 because it’s Will Smith, for crying out loud. Will Smith? The same Will Smith who has a deserved reputation for being one of Hollywood’s nice guys? The same Will Smith who seems so personable, and funny, and charming? Who seems like the perfect father and husband? Who appears to have everything going for him?
This was also a man who, as everyone correctly expected, was literally minutes away from being crowned the best actor in the world, for heaven’s sake.
What I’m trying to say here is that on the outside this was a person for whom everything was about to coalesce into a glorious crowning achievement. He should have been on cloud nine. Nervous, yes, but happy and proud and satisfied, too.
So, for me the truly important question here is not one of morality, but one of psychology:
What flicked the emotional switch that instantly turned an apparently benevolent Will Smith, originally seen laughing at Rock’s ‘joke’, into the raging Hadron Collider of testosterone that felt compelled to take a long walk with the sole intention of punching the person at the other end of it?
Regardless of its nature or intent, the provocation here seems so obviously disproportionate to the response it triggered that we surely have to assume that Will Smith is not okay, don’t we? That there is something going on in his life that requires us, as fellow human beings, to check up on him?
When people behave out of character it usually betrays a fundamental shift in their psychological or emotional state.
This is rarely just the slipping of a public mask and almost always something psychologically visceral that overrides the natural inclination to respond in a measured and even way.
It’s likely that none of us are strangers to this. We can all identify with the person who says or does something they regret at times of intense stress or pressure because we’ve all been that person at some point in our lives.
Most of the time, though, our reactions are relatively trivial. We may be unnecessarily angry, unsympathetic, or irritable. At worst, we may behave in a way that is at odds with our true values.
And, in most cases, that period of uncharacteristic intolerance is short-lived, a well-timed and heartfelt apology restores the status quo, and we carry on as normal.
In more extreme instances, though, this irrational behaviour points to someone in crisis with themself, and suggests they are struggling to cope with whatever emotional stress they’re carrying.
And this is the point when, we hope, the people who know and love them best will intervene and ‘check in’ on their mental health.
As an observer with a professional interest in how behaviour is inferred from psychological health, what was most fascinating – and concerning – about Sunday night was the length of the walk Will Smith had to take to reach Chris Rock.
It wasn’t terribly far, but it was far enough that a rational person, fully aware of his surroundings and cognisant of the surroundings and circumstances in which he found himself, should have had the time to ask himself: what the hell are you doing?
And it is this moment when his rage clearly obliterated any capacity for rational thought that makes me wonder whether there isn’t something very wrong in Will Smith’s world right now.
Worse, his behaviour was – perhaps still is – potentially career-ending. It, and his expletive-heavy verbal throwdowns, will certainly serve to tarnish for many what has otherwise proved a spotless reputation as one of the good guys.
His peers, fans and critics will look at him a little differently, judge him a little more quickly.
The world has been quick to condemn both Smith and Rock for the parts they each played in Sunday night’s altercation.
Chris Rock has taken some heat for a gag that many will consider having been in bad taste. But such are the slings and arrows for edgy comedians: theirs is a road on which genius and vulgarity are often blurred.
Rightly or wrongly, depending on your view, Will Smith will pay a much higher price – at least in the short term – that his Monday night apology won’t be able to fully mitigate.
But in the ongoing Twitterstorm of finger-pointing, and the waning aftershock, I just hope he’s okay.