Colin Brazier: The Oscar audience's reaction to Will Smith was the herd mentality writ large

Thousands of innocent civilians have died in Ukraine and, in a perfect world, no other news story should be on our lips right now

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Thousands of innocent civilians have died in Ukraine and, in a perfect world, no other news story should be on our lips right now.

But as a journalist, part of my job is to bridge the gap between what people should be thinking about and what they actually are talking about.

And today there was only one topic of conversation, and not just for news junkies.

How did you react to the sight of one of the world’s most famous men striking someone for telling a joke? My first thought, my initial gut reaction, was that it was JUST a slap.

Definitely not a punch, as some sloppy commentators asserted.

Will Smith (R) hits Chris Rock as Rock spoke on stage during the 94th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 27, 2022. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Will Smith (R) hits Chris Rock as Rock spoke on stage during the 94th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 27, 2022. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Will Smith, who admittedly delivered that slap with some force, was provoked by the chivalrous desire to stand up for his wife, who’d just been cruelly taunted, in front of tens of millions of people.

I thought back for parallels. I recalled a story about the British comic, Roy ‘Chubby’ Brown. He told a joke about the Bradford fire, not long after it took place.

As someone who witnessed that horrific blaze, which claimed 56 lives, I remember feeling equivocal about the idea of a man being assaulted for telling a joke about it.

In reality, the Chubby Brown beating is probably an urban myth. But my reaction was real enough. Maybe he had it coming.

Of course, the more we think about it, regardless of what our first feeling is, the more it becomes clear that there isn’t really a justification for assaulting someone, who’s hit us with nothing more harmful than hot air. Especially at a time when freedom of expression is under threat almost as never before.

Denzel Washington (L) walks with Will Smith after Smith hit Chris Rock (not pictured) as Rock spoke on stage during the 94th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 27, 2022. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Denzel Washington (L) walks with Will Smith after Smith hit Chris Rock (not pictured) as Rock spoke on stage during the 94th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 27, 2022. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

The right response to a joke that crosses the line, is to leave the company of the person telling it. To walk out. There can be no ‘maybe he had it coming’.

I have no idea what made Will Smith slap the comic who cracked a gag at his wife’s expense. I don’t know him from Adam. But, for all we may not like it, these fabulously wealthy celebrities do help shape the shallower values of our culture.

A classy response to an ad hominem remark about someone we love isn’t to lash-out physically, but to leave the auditorium theatrically. Smith didn’t do that. After slapping the host, and turning the air blue, he was allowed, not just to return to his seat, but collect an Oscar 20 minutes later.

And this is the extraordinary part. He received a standing ovation.

Will Smith accepts the Oscar for Best Actor in "King Richard" at the 94th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 27, 2022. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Will Smith accepts the Oscar for Best Actor in "King Richard" at the 94th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 27, 2022. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

These are celebrities who never tire of lecturing the viewing public about toxic masculinity.

Indeed there had been jokes made at the expense of a Republican politician earlier in the awards ceremony about that very thing.

But when it came to showing disdain for a man who’d just lost his nut and physically humiliated another, they were silent. Not a boo. Not a slow hand-clap. Not a walk-out.

It was the herd mentality writ large. Confronted with a real moral challenge, one that required them to think through the issues without having the luxury of a chat with their agent or a trawl through Twitter, they were helpless.

Now, some will argue the whole thing was a confection; a hoax to generate headlines.

I don’t accept that. There is nothing as private as a marriage, and who knows what inner conflicts and passions spurred Smith to do harm to a fellow actor on the world’s biggest stage?

But having lost his cool, he ought to have left the building. That he didn’t, suggests a degree of narcissism and entitlement that should surprise nobody who’s watched actors take themselves more and more seriously in recent years.

Watch them develop an air of ethical invulnerability as they drink-in their own hype.

But the real fault isn’t Smith’s. It’s with the audience. The whole pampered tribe, who love nothing more than telling us that they will use their privileged positions and high-profiles to stand-up against injustice.

When it came to one of their own hitting a man for telling a joke they were clueless lemmings.

Which is what happens when any group of people stop thinking for themselves and know only what it is to agree with one another.

That’s the Brazier Angle.