Execution by “dignified silence” and the nuance of violence.
With widespread condemnation following the 94th Academy Awards, as a society, we need to examine what we consider to be violent, and how much an individual should withstand before they reach their breaking point.
In 2017, when asked about the abuse she endured as first lady, Michelle Obama said the following:
“The shards that cut me the deepest were the ones that intended to cut…[w]omen, we endure those cuts in so many ways that we don’t even notice we’re cut…[w]e are living with small, tiny cuts, and we are bleeding every single day.”
I have no interest in opining on the actions of Will Smith, his apology, subsequent resignation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, or how he should be disciplined. I equally have no interest in the intricacies of relationships between Chris Rock, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett-Smith. But for context, Chris Rock’s penchant for making public statements about Pinkett-Smith dates back to at least 1997, and continued as recently as 2016.
I do, however, have an interest in how we assess violence, and how much one should withstand, and why.
Who decides when a joke is funny, and what is that predicated upon? Comedians came rushing to the defense of Chris Rock, including Bill Maher, who chimed that Alopecia isn’t as severe or life-threatening as leukemia and, “…you know, just put on a f***ing wig like everybody else at the Oscars if it bothers you so much.” Putting the insensitivity of that aside, why can we make a joke about Alopecia and not leukemia? Why is someone’s body attacking itself subject to humor, but tumors attacking less so? Who makes that decision?
I remember when actor Chadwick Boseman was mocked for his diminished stature to the point that he deleted Instagram photos because of the cruel comments made about his appearance. Months later, he lost his silent battle to colon cancer. Are you still laughing?
I remember when Whitney Houston was used in every punchline. “Crack is whack,” referring to an interview with Diane Sawyer where she fervently denied using crack-cocaine, flooded mainstream airwaves for years. A greeting card which mocked the Grammy-Award winning singer’s turbulent relationship with Bobby Brown was pulled from Target shelves. In 2019, Chris Rock eventually deleted a joke he made on his Instagram about the departed singer’s drug use. What is the “punchline” in drug addiction and abuse? Why was it funny when Whitney was alive? Is it still, now that she’s dead? Was it funny for her daughter Bobbi Kristina, who watched her mother battle this terrible disease, and then met an eerily similar fate almost to the date, three years later?
The treatment, ridicule, and degradation of Britney Spears requires an article unto itself. However I still remember when people mocked a 26-year-old woman, as she was clearly having a nervous breakdown, and fighting for custody of her children, all while allegedly being abused. Are the jokes still humorous, now that she’s publicly accused her family of forcibly drugging her, and robbing her reproductive autonomy? Were they ever?
When lamenting about the altercation between Will Smith and Chris Rock, Amy Schumer complained that she couldn’t joke, “‘Don’t Look Up’ is the name of a movie? More like don’t look down the barrel of Alec Baldwin’s shotgun,” referencing Alec Baldwin fatally shooting cinematographer Halyna Hutchins in October 2021. If Amy performed as she wished, would Halyna’s widower and son have laughed? Should they have been expected to?
Beneath the surface, there’s something pernicious about expecting someone to accept a joke that they in no way find funny — or allowing someone to fixate on an individual and publicly mock them at every opportunity. There’s also a violence in that. Interpersonal violence, can be just as harmful as physical violence.
Time and time again, I revisit those remarks by Michelle Obama. For me, they’re even more poignant than “when they go low, we go high.” I now realize they impacted me so greatly because I too was complicit in her silent execution, in her death by one-thousand cuts. I think of how we all exalted her perfection; praising how she never raised her voice, was always positive, and possessed profound eloquence while going high as others tested gravity.
In the end, that steadfast grace was more harmful than we realized. As the former first lady noted in her memoir, when Marine Force One departed on Inauguration Day 2017, she broke down in tears for thirty minutes, releasing all the stress and pressure from the expectation of perfection. Me praising Michelle’s immaculance, instead acknowledging her humanity, contributed to every tear she shed.
This is not a diatribe against comedians nor their craft, however a genuine question of what is acceptable in our society and how that reflects on us as human beings. Amy Schumer noted how “traumatized” she was by the events of the Oscars. I genuinely wonder if she is as equally traumatized by Louis C.K. receiving a Grammy Award for his comedy special where he jokes about his sexual misconduct. I wonder if his victims are laughing, or if they receive a percentage of the proceeds.
Lastly, I remember Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, a critically-acclaimed collection of poems and essays, with an incredible entry called ‘Betty Ann’ by Ina Hughes. A young woman moves from a liberal state to a conservative one, attends a private school, sharing her progressive ideas of inclusion and civil rights. Almost immediately, she is ridiculed mercilessly, later removed from the school, and subsequently suffers from a nervous breakdown. One of Ina’s last lines reads, “sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can shatter a soul.” Betty Ann was hospitalized without anyone laying a single hand on her.
I’ve never been in a grand auditorium and expected to take jokes at my expense. I have lived long enough to know the words of another can scar for a lifetime.
Alas, I have no interest in opining on the actions of Will Smith, his resignation, or punishment by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. However with the echoes of indignation from every corner of the media, I am curious as to how we define, assess, and respond, to violence.