Will Smith has taken to Instagram to apologise for slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars ceremony, after the comedian made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia. “Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive,” he wrote. “My behaviour at last night’s Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable.”
That may go some way to repairing the relationship between the two men, but one thing is certain: it will not stop the punishing hot takes that have made social media all but unusable over the past 24 hours. The forward momentum is simply too great; too unyielding. The beast is awake, and it must be fed.
Smith and Rock are celebrities, worth many, many millions of dollars between them. As is the case with most wealthy people, the things they do with and to one another are as far removed from normal human experience as the domestic affairs of the Greek gods. Will Smith lives in a 10,000 sq ft mansion in a gated community in the San Fernando Valley. It may as well have been Zeus slapping Hades up there.
But given so many of us now take our moral instruction from things we see on variously sized screens, the slap heard around the world quickly became the world’s least interesting mass exercise in applied ethics and whataboutery. It was no longer just a bit of lurid celebrity gossip – it was an expression of everything good and bad in the world all at once.
Within minutes, a televised act of mild violence emerged as the flashpoint for virtually every social, moral and political issue you’d care to name, and grist for the endless content mill most of human culture is now charged with powering. (Christos Tsiolkas was thinking way too conservatively about the possible social reverberations of a single slap, it turns out.)
What began as an on-stage biff between two celebrities over a disrespectful gag quickly became a Thunderdome for increasingly irrelevant arguments, as millions of users experiencing the internet equivalent of a sugar high tried to cram it into whatever their pet issue was at that moment. Was Will Smith’s slap a sadly perfect example of toxic masculinity? Proof of Hollywood’s double standards on bad behaviour? A radical act of civil disobedience against ableism and misogyny? Evidence for structural racism? Evidence against structural racism? Cancel culture? A metaphor for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? A deliberate distraction from that same invasion? Incontrovertible evidence of how the Holocaust could be allowed to happen? Brexit? Trump? 9/11?
As the facts of the matter are undeniably simple, many seasoned posters saw fit to engineer a series of increasingly abstract counterfactuals to litigate their chosen point. What if one of them were a white woman? What if the joke had been about asthma instead of alopecia? What if Smith had a gun? “Just a reminder that if Will Smith had slapped Betty White for a joke she made (however insensitive), she easily could have fallen backward, cracked her skull, and died of a brain bleed,” read one instantly viral tweet, pointlessly conjuring a scenario in which the deceased actor was not only still alive but making off-colour alopecia jokes at the Academy Awards.
In each post you can see an aching effort to establish some new turf on the unending torrent of online opinion, and to find some new meaningful resonance to an event that was, at the end of the day, an internationally broadcast moment of inflamed passions that had very little to do with the Russian shelling of Mariupol.
I could make a broader point here about the perverse incentives of the modern internet and the resulting toxic effect on the discourse. In the early days of mass uptake of social media, some theorists turned to an academic term from the world of media studies to capture the profound social weirdness these new platforms brought with them. “Context collapse” – which refers to the dislocating experience of having infinitely diverse audiences occupying the same online spaces and consuming the same content in radically different ways – has become part of the fabric of daily life.
But you know what? If I made then point then I might be no less insane than the people imagining a scenario in which Will Smith slapped Betty White to death on the Oscars stage.
Instead, as a committed consumer of some of the worst posts online, I’ll just keep having the time of my life.
JR Hennessy is a Sydney-based writer who runs The Terminal, a newsletter on business, technology, culture and politics