A civilized person is one “…with inborn instincts inhibited.”
That phrase stopped me short, even though it was embedded—mid-paragraph, page two—in Peter Schjeldahl’s review of “As They Saw It: Artists Witnessing War,” the current exhibit at The Clark (The New Yorker, March 22, 2022).
I like to think of civilization as an unalloyed, if imperfect, good. The accumulation of human potential and achievement over time, evolving ever onward towards equity and light. I never considered that the fundamental building block of civilization—the civilized person—could be defined by how well we inhibit instinct.
Yet, as a child, I grew up on the myth of the American West and therefore equate ‘real men’ with wild, lawless, open space. As an architect, I witnessed the testosterone throb of Bosses who thrive in chaotic Haiti, and the countervailing deference every worker in China displays. These international experiences helped me appreciate Haitian culture even as I recognize it as so fundamentally different than our own that direct comparison is useless. Meanwhile, I understand how China’s culture of conformity is the fuel of its economic juggernaut.
While mulling the tradeoffs between the benefits civilization provides against the constraints each individual must accommodate for a supposed greater good, I considered several current paradoxes, seeking a keen example. Perhaps, how asserting the right to participate in society unvaccinated and unmasked compromises others’ health? Or how people of certain identities demand equal rights which others (who may not understand or even recognize those identities) see as special treatment? Maybe, how regulating the way gender/sexuality can be taught in public schools protects (coddles?) some innocents at the expense of eliminating viable visions of adulthood for those few students for whom it is their healthy path?
But then Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on national television at the Oscars; and shortly thereafter the audience gave the perpetrator a standing ovation. If ever there is an example of inborn instincts unleashed in a forum pretending to be civilized, this is it.
First, consider Chris Rock. Why does the Academy Awards keep inviting him back? His first outing as host, in 2005, got mixed to poor reviews by mainstream media and was resoundingly panned in-house. His riffs twittered between mean-spirited and raw. His spoof highlighting what movie-goers actually see versus what’s nominated exposed an uncomfortable Hollywood truth. His insistent jabbering at Jude Law for showing up in virtually every movie that year received a direct rebut, on stage, from the ever-dour Sean Penn. Yet, the Academy invited him back again in 2016: the year of #OscarSoWhite. That must have been quite a party, though by 2016 I had stopped watching the Oscars. Still, The Academy invited him back again. Why? Because Hollywood endures insults better than crashing ratings, and Chris Rock is a better audience draw than some of the movies celebrated.
I watched the first hour of this year’s show: about as much pomp and makeup and exposed cleavage and limousine liberal-speak I can stomach. I witnessed Will Smith’s prominent seat, since he was a shoo-in for Oscar glory, with his beautiful wife sitting beside. I noticed that Jada was bald, and gave it no more thought than her sumptuous gown. Everybody’s gotta have a look. Chemotherapy? Alopecia? Fashion? Who cares? Among our inalienable rights, there must be the right to be bald.
It is not, however, Jada Pinkett Smith’s inalienable right to sit front and center at the Oscar’s with irreverent Christ Rock at the mic, and escape whatever wrath he inflicts. Chris Rock isn’t invited to the party to be nice, and Jada Pinkett Smith is a public person. Whatever one thinks of the GI-Jane joke, it was classic Chris Rock, and it wasn’t libel.
Enter Will Smith, storming up center stage and slapping Chris Rock. So much for inhibiting instincts. Fisticuffs has a long-standing among men of grit protecting their women-folk. But on stage at the Dolby Theater, in tuxedoes, in front of the peers about to give him a little golden man, before however many dwindling numbers of television viewers? Welcome to civilization removing its gloves.
Will returned to his seat and cursed and cursed. What the video views I’ve watched don’t show is: Will consoling his wife. Defending the purity of the little woman has always been more about the men than the supposedly injured party, anyway.
Will returns later to claim his statue. Aligns himself with his character, King Richard. Talks of defending his family. Cries. The audience gives him a standing ovation. The world heaves a kind of chest-thumping ‘huzzah’ for the strong man. Even left-leaning Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley tweets, “#Alopecia nation stand up! Thank you #WillSmith. Shout out to all the husbands who defend their wives living with alopecia in the face of daily ignorance & insults.”
The show ends and the crowd parties hard. The next morning everyone wakes up. The spirit of unleashed instinct yields to the demands of civilization. Will Smith issues a formal apology. Others call for Chris Rock to do so. The Academy considers withdrawing Will Smith’s Oscar. Representative Pressley’s tweet disappears. A tiny few clamor to address the obvious: a crime has been committed, and documented pretty well. Where are the charges? The arrest?
In my fantasy, Will Smith is arraigned, convicted, and delivered a special sentence: to play Serf Richard, in the flesh, picking crops among migrant workers, hanging out with hood gangs, addressing meetings in union halls, counseling Silicon Valley tech bros on how easily the façade of civilization can fold when we fail to inhibit the toxic masculinity coursing through our inborn instincts.
The Oscar slap is an important moment for crystallizing the chaos of America today; a civilization in retreat as more and more of us refuse to inhibit our innate instincts. As for next year’s Oscar’s? I might not even tune in for an hour. Just go straight to WWF for a dose of more honest violence.