Opinion: Will Smith shouldn’t be defined by his most public mistake

Editor’s note: Jill Filipovic is a New York-based journalist and the author of OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this comment are their own. View more opinions 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 onto the stage and punched comedian Chris Rock after Rock Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett, who was struggling with hair loss due to alopecia, sharply assaulted Smith. Because of the attack, the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences banned Smith from the Oscars for the next 10 years.

The slap was jaw-dropping, partly because of Smith’s reputation as an affable family man, partly because of the timing: In recent years, Hollywood has reckoned with the toll of male abuse and mistreatment, albeit mostly female, in the #MeToo movement. The slap was an outrageous display of male violence disguised as chivalry – a man standing up for his wronged wife by slapping another man who had insulted her.

There may have been a time when Smith was applauded for his actions. Luckily it’s not. But the question now isn’t whether Smith was justified or not (he wasn’t). It’s about whether he can ever return to public favor and what it means to make amends. Smith has recently come back into the public eye, and how he’s dealt with himself is a revealing window into American society’s shortcomings when it comes to violence — and forgiveness.

Smith’s foray into public life came with an interview on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah to promote his new film Emancipation, the story of an enslaved man who not only escapes his captors but also directly participates in his success involved is 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 to see it. But he also seems to take responsibility for his actions, calling the Oscars slap a “terrible decision” and declaring that he’s going through a difficult time personally – “not that that justifies my behavior at all,” he added. He said what hurts most for him is that his actions “have made it difficult for other people. And it’s like I got the idea where they say hurt people hurt people.”

While Smith didn’t publicly apologize during his own Oscar speech shortly after the incident, he did apologize multiple times for the slap and addressed his apology directly to Chris Rock. He has also made it clear that if members of the public do not want to forgive him, it is their prerogative. If anyone wasn’t ready to see a Smith movie, he told Fox 5 in Washington, DC, “I would absolutely respect that and give them their space not to be ready.”

The kind of violent response that Smith imposed on Rock is a huge problem in the United States, one that is often infinitely aggravated by our massive civilian oversupply of guns. We are a country where far too many people die violently and where violence – and especially gun violence – is often far too permissive.

But we are also a country that can be immensely unforgiving and unforgiving, still practically puritanical in our desire to divide people into good and evil. Even as the number of people behind bars has decreased, we still lock up a higher proportion of our population than anywhere else in the world – and that hasn’t made us any safer.

So here we are: doing little to prevent highly preventable deadly violence. But we often imprison people for horrid (and often non-violent) crimes for extraordinarily long periods of time, with little or no plan for rehabilitation, treatment, or reintegration into society.

Losing Will Smith fans isn’t the same as locking someone up and throwing away the key. But our punitive impulses in our criminal justice system are also reflected in our cultural punishment and in our totally inconsistent standards of behavior.

Smith, who hits another man, has (rightly) put him under scrutiny for months despite apologizing and otherwise appears to be living a decent life. But other terrible celebrities are being reinstated into the herd or never ousted from it — to name just two, men like Chris Brown, who pleaded guilty to the crime of brutally beating his then-girlfriend Rihanna and had a string of violent tantrums since then, including allegations that he abused and raped women (to which he responded by selling “this b!tch lyin'” t-shirts in addition to denying the allegations), or men like former President Donald Trump who confronts is multiple allegations of sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct (all of which he has denied).

That’s not to say we should lower the bar for men like Brown and Trump to overcome. It means that we should be thoughtful and consistent. Those who dismiss (in their actions and words) the seriousness of the abuse and mistreatment of others do not deserve our attention, our votes, or our money. Those who have generally been sincere but make a terrible mistake, admit it, and try to right it are not necessarily eligible for universal and instant 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 livelihood.

This can be a difficult balance. But there are also dangers in fomenting a never-ending appetite for public humiliation, never settling for an apology, and enjoying the spectacle of people prostrating before an unforgiving public.

In Smith’s case in particular, he made a mistake that he understands as appalling. It’s important to send out and reinforce the message that violence is wrong. But it is also important to emphasize that human beings are fallible creatures and that part of building the kind of society we want is not just discouraging and punishing violence, but also having grace, compassion and empathy in the face of repentance to promote. Fortunately, these gifts – grace, compassion, empathy – are unlimited resources. We can distribute them – also in Will Smith’s direction.

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