Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
What does it look like to atone for a terrible mistake?
At last year’s Oscars, actor Will Smith shocked the nation when he stormed on stage and slapped comedian Chris Rock, after Rock made a dig at Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who has struggled with hair loss due to alopecia. For the assault, the Board of Governors for the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences banned Smith from the Oscars for the next 10 years.
The slap was stunning in part because of Smith’s reputation as an affable family man, and in part because of the timing: For the past several years, Hollywood has been reckoning with the toll of male abuse and mistreatment, though largely of women, through the #MeToo movement. The slap was an outrageous display of male violence disguised as chivalry – a man standing up for his wronged wife by hitting another man who insulted her.
There may have been an era in which Smith was widely applauded for his actions. Thankfully, this isn’t it. But the question now isn’t whether or not Smith was justified (he wasn’t). It’s whether he can ever come back into the public’s good graces, and what it means to make amends. Smith has recently reappeared in the public eye, and how he has handled himself is a revealing window into American society’s inadequacies when it comes to violence – and to forgiveness.
Smith’s foray back into public life came with an interview on “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah to promote his new movie “Emancipation,” the story of an enslaved man who not only escapes his captors but also has a direct hand in the success of the abolitionist movement in the United States. Smith, of course, has a personal and financial interest in the film doing well, which requires the public go see it. But he also seems to be taking responsibility for his actions, calling the slap at the Oscars a “horrific decision” and explaining that he was going through a hard time personally – “not that that justifies my behavior at all,” he added. He said what was most painful to him was that his actions “made it hard for other people. And it’s like I understood the idea where they say hurt people hurt people.”
Smith, though he failed to apologize publicly during his own Oscars speech shortly after the incident, has apologized for the slap multiple times, and has addressed his apologies to Chris Rock directly. He’s also been clear that if members of the public don’t want to forgive him, that is their prerogative. If someone wasn’t yet ready to see a film featuring Smith, he told Fox 5 in Washington, DC, “I would absolutely respect that and allow them their space to not be ready.”
The kind of violent response that Smith laid on Rock is a huge problem in the United States, often made infinitely worse by our massive oversupply of weapons among the civilian population. We are a nation in which far too many people meet violent deaths, and that often treats violence – and especially gun violence – far too permissively.
But we are also a country that can be tremendously unmerciful and unforgiving, still virtually Puritanical in our desire to divide people into good and bad. Even as the rates of people behind bars have decreased, we still imprison a higher proportion of our population than anywhere else on earth – and that hasn’t made us safer.
So this is where we are: We do little to prevent very preventable deadly violence. But we lock people up, often for extraordinarily long periods, for bad (and often nonviolent) acts, with little to no plan for rehabilitation, treatment, or reintegration in society.
Will Smith losing fans is not the same as locking someone up and throwing away the key. But our punitive impulses in our criminal justice system are reflected in our cultural punitiveness, too, and in our wildly inconsistent standards of behavior.
Smith slapping another man has put him (rightly) under scrutiny for months, even as he has apologized, and has otherwise appeared to live an upstanding life. But other serially awful celebrities are welcomed back into the fold, or never pushed out of it – to cite only two, men like Chris Brown, who pleaded guilty to felony assault for viciously beating his then-girlfriend Rihanna and has had a series of violent rage incidents since, including accusations of him abusing and raping women (to which he responded, in addition to denying the allegations, by selling “this b!tch lyin’” t-shirts), or men like former President Donald Trump, who faces multiple accusations of sexual assault, harassment and misconduct (all of which he has denied).
That isn’t to say that we should lower the bar so that men like Brown and Trump can clear it. It is to say that we should be thoughtful and consistent. Those who dismiss (with their actions and their words) the seriousness of abuse and maltreatment of others do not deserve our attention, our votes or our money. Those who have been generally upstanding but make a terrible mistake, own up to it, and try for repair aren’t necessarily entitled to universal and immediate forgiveness, but should be met with an open mind. They shouldn’t be defined by the worst decision they’ve ever made and shouldn’t necessarily lose their livelihoods.
This can be a difficult balance to strike. But there is danger, too, in feeding an infinite appetite for public shaming, in never letting any apology be quite enough, and in reveling in the spectacle of people prostrating themselves to an unforgiving public.
In the case of Smith specifically, he made a mistake he understands to be horrific. It’s important to send and reinforce the message that violence is wrong. But it’s also important the emphasize that human beings are fallible creatures, and that part of building the kind of society we want is not only discouraging and penalizing violence, but encouraging grace, mercy and empathy in the face of contrition. These gifts – grace, mercy, empathy – are, fortunately, unlimited resources. We can spread them around – including in Will Smith’s direction.