Ideas about violence in the wake of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock

March 28, 2022
Photo: Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times

~ 4 minutes read

At the Oscars last night, Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith — who suffers from alopecia — being bald. Will Smith then walked onto the stage and smacked Rock, before yelling “Keep my wife’s name out your f***ing mouth.”

The bottom lineOur ideas about when violence is acceptable and what counts as violence in the first place affect whether we see Smith, Rock, or both as the aggressor.

Let’s look at why.

Is violence ever the answer?

To some, violence is never the answer. Even though Rock’s comments might have been hurtful or inappropriate, resolving to violence is unacceptable. Smith’s behavior shows that violence is dangerously normalized in Hollywood and/or society.

To others, violence isn’t acceptable, but ignoring the physical impact that harmful words and policies can have is also a form of violence. Those who are offended by physical, interpersonal violence need to recognize and criticize other forms of violence as well. We must have more nuanced conversations about what constitutes violence beyond simplified categories of physical and verbal attacks.

To still others, physical violence is a warranted response if prompted by violent words or policies. Defending those we love and our communities is important, and saying that violence is never okay implicitly condones verbal aggression and structural violence by limiting how people can respond to it.

What counts as violence?
How people define violence can affect how we interpret a violent interaction.

To some, violence can only take the form of interpersonal, physical assault. Meeting words with physical violence is therefore never justified because it escalates the situation further. Smith was wrong to escalate, and could have addressed the situation with words instead.

To others, physical assault and some harmful words and policies count as violence. In some instances it’s justified to meet non-physical threats with physical violence, but this interaction wasn’t one of them. It’s also hypocritical to critique this one instance of violence by saying “violence is never the answer” while allowing for or defending violence in other situations — for example, physical violence by law enforcement and the military or verbal violence against marginalized communities.

To still others, words or policies that harm people also count as violence. Rock’s comments disrespected Pinkett Smith and made fun of her medical condition, so Smith’s limited physical response to those words was not uncalled for. It’s important to defend loved ones against verbal aggression. 

Why do people see this so differently?

There are a lot of reasons why our ideas about violence, and when it’s acceptable, diverge. Our personal experiences with violence, our understanding of the specific situation, and how we view the people involved can all affect how we interpret the significance of a slap.

For example, someone who rarely, if ever, witnesses physical violence might find a slap more awful than someone who regularly witnesses physical violence.


The Narratives Project’s highest value is peace. But as a pluralist organization, we also recognize that there is more than one legitimate moral view of what violence is and when it is justified.

Sitting by when our loved ones are attacked does not necessarily constitute peace. Finding a balance between protecting what we love and living peacefully is a tale as old as time, and we aren’t always going to get the balance right. But if we want to live in a peaceful society, it’s essential to try.

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