The Slap: What is meaningful accountability for what happened at the Oscars?

Hint: it doesn’t involve The Academy

A torrent of tweets, condemnations, and think pieces have been unleashed in the wake of Will Smith’s disquieting slap of Chris Rock at the Oscars on Sunday. Many have neatly distilled the act of violence into a simple binary of right and wrong: are you Team Will or Team Chris? (Noticing the stark absence of Team Jada from most discussions). Is the question of taking sides so simple…or even the best course of action? Instead, I hope the incident sparks rich discussion about the complexities of harmful acts and what meaningful accountability might look like.

It’s so easy for us to pass judgment as outsiders. As a society, judging others is one of our favorite past times, followed quickly by taking sides in opposition to one another. We’ve become adept at it. But are we as spectators really the most qualified to make meaning of the incident and decide what comes next? And when we talk about what comes next, is punishment and expulsion of the person who committed harm the only choice? Is it the best choice?

Recently, the movement to end gender-based violence has been grappling with similar questions, namely, what does meaningful accountability look like in response to harm. It’s a simple question with a complexity of answers, especially when the harm we’re talking about is violence.

A restorative approach offers some intriguing prospects as an alternative to punishment. It presents stark contrasts to punishment in both how we respond to violence and what happens to those involved:

  • Where punishment focuses on enforcing rules, restorative practices focus on building accountability.
  • Where punishment is grounded in retribution, restorative practices are grounded in repair and healing.
  • Where punishment focuses on a perpetrator/victim dynamic, restorative practices acknowledge that harm affects more than two individuals; it impacts families and often entire communities.

Because punitive and restorative approaches are grounded in very different theories, they ask very different questions. And when we ask different questions about what happened, we reach different conclusions about how to move forward. Here’s an example:  

A punitive approach assumes this:

  • Crime is a violation of the law and the state.
  • Violations create guilt.
  • Justice requires the state (or other authority) to determine blame (guilt) and impose punishment.

…and therefore asks these questions:

  • What rules/laws have been broken?
  • Who did it?
  • What do they deserve?

A restorative approach assumes this:

  • Harm is violation of people, relationships, and obligations to one another.
  • Violations create obligations.
  • Justice involves everyone in an effort to address the harm.

…and therefore asks these questions:

  • What harm has been done?
  • What obligations arise?
  • How can repair happen?
Chris Rock in blue velvet jacket with black bowtie and dress pants presenting at the Oscars awards ceremony.
Credit: Chris Pizzello/AP/Shutterstock

For some, the Oscars incident reinforces inaccurate and harmful stereotypes of Black men. This fallout is problematic in many ways, including the fact that it places the burden for eliminating racism on Black people. Because a restorative approach honors the humanity of all parties involved, the destructive reaction of racializing the harm may be less likely to happen. An approach grounded in repair is more likely to take many perspectives of the situation into account, including the roots of the harm, and address the larger pressures that created the circumstances under which the harm occurred.

The Academy says it attempted to expel Smith from the ceremony and is now mulling over “disciplinary proceedings”. What if instead of “The Academy” deciding what should happen after an act of violence, Rock, Pinkett Smith, and even Smith himself were asked the restorative questions above? What if we centered the needs of Rock (and Pinkett Smith, whose experience has been lost in all of this) in determining what happens next, rather than the faceless, third party “Academy” calling all the shots?

From everything we know about Will Smith, his behavior on Sunday was very much out of character…which speaks to one reason we were so shocked by it. Smith himself has publicly taken responsibility and apologized. Chris Rock has declined to file a police report. What if Rock and Pinkett Smith received support and consolation while a trusted friend simultaneously said to Smith, “This isn’t like you. What happened?” (I can’t be sure, but I’d like to think this is exactly what Tyler Perry and Denzel Washington were doing when they approached Smith during the break). What if we honored the humanity of the person who committed harm as much as those who have been harmed? Taking note of the stunningly sudden vilification of Will Smith, Hanna Phifer writes,

If a Black man who has had a professional and personal reputation of being one of the nicest men in Hollywood for over the course of his three-decade career can immediately be villainized, I shudder at the thought of the way people are treating the Black boys and Black men in their everyday lives with considerably less social and monetary capital.

Image of Will Smith in a black tuxedo with black ascot standing next to Jada Pinkett Smith in an emerald green floor length gown with ruffled skirt on the red carpet at the Oscars awards ceremony.

As professionals who work every day with trauma survivors, we see the “fight/flight/freeze” trauma response can result in violence that is out of character. Context does not excuse violence, but context for violent behavior can be part of the meaning making for traumatic events, which can promote healing. What if we took into consideration generational trauma and/or systemic oppression as possible triggers for causing harm?

As it relates to Rock, Pinkett Smith, and Smith, I’d like to imagine how a restorative response—focusing on accountability, healing, and relationship—might change the long-term outcomes for all people involved. And how might those outcomes differ from our more common punitive response of taking sides, condemning, punishing, and potentially shunning the individual who committed harm? Which approach empowers the people who were harmed? Which lends to connection and growth—maybe even transformation? Which is more likely to help all involved repair and move towards healing-individually and collectively.

Violence is complicated. There is no one approach to ending violence that will work in all instances. And yet there are possibilities that exist to expand our traditional repertoire of responses to harm and perhaps offer repair rather than punishment. Here at the Action Alliance, we’re excited about holding conversations like this and imagining possibilities, especially when those possibilities guide us away from punishment and disconnection toward healing and liberation. We hope you are too.

Kate McCord is Associate Director of the Virginia Sexual & Domestic Violence Action Alliance and has been active in the work to end gender-based violence for 30 years.

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