Turning the Other Cheek*

*Editor’s Note: On March 4, Russia enacted a law that criminalizes public opposition to, or independent news reporting about, the war in Ukraine. The law makes it a crime to call the war a “war” rather than a “special military operation” on social media or in a news article or broadcast. The law is understood to penalize any language that “discredits” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calls for sanctions or protests Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It punishes anyone found to spread “false information” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.

Izvestia columnist Sergey Sychev on Will Smith’s well-aimed blow, slapgate and the peculiarities of cancel culture.

Many viewers still think Will Smith staged his slap-down of Chris Rock at the Oscars on March 27 as a bizarre effort to raise the ceremony’s TV ratings, and to generally strengthen waning interest in the Academy Awards.

But even the most rabid skeptics must admit that if this was a joke, it has gone on far too long and has been overshadowed by the severe consequences that have followed. Smith voluntarily resigned from the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences without waiting for the academy to take disciplinary action. Netflix has halted the production of “Fast and Loose,” starring the actor. Indeed, the film also lost its director not so long ago, and its fate remained unclear. In addition, production was halted on “Bad Boys 4,” the latest movie in the popular franchise starring Smith.

What happens next is hard to say. For now, Rock is not pursuing legal action against Smith. However, nothing is stopping him from doing so in the future if his lawyers advise him to act. Nevertheless, they say that tickets for Rock’s shows have skyrocketed in price since the slap: Everyone wants to see the guy Smith punched in action.

In the meantime, journalists have divided those who admire Smith and his acting and those who strongly condemn him. Among the latter, Jim Carrey has spoken out most harshly against violence on live television. As a result, the case has already been dubbed “slapgate,” reminiscent of Watergate. And indeed, there are ripples on the water.

Of course, there is some background to the incident. First, this is not the first time Rock has publicly joked about Jada Pinkett Smith. Second, Pinkett Smith shaved her head for a reason — she has an autoimmune disease. Third, the tabloids have repeatedly written about the couple’s marriage difficulties because Pinkett Smith was allegedly cheating on her husband and not particularly keeping it secret. Rock’s joke was just too hurtful for Smith, who was nervous before receiving an (almost guaranteed) Oscar for best actor. Evidently, he kept laughing automatically for a moment and then suddenly went on stage to deal with it. And later, probably just as automatically, he went to the Oscars after-party to celebrate, something which journalists noted sarcastically.

Those close to Smith are competing to express surprise over how the usually calm and friendly actor lost his temper. Meanwhile, Smith has gradually been canceled. It is a big deal to have two significant projects halted in a few days. The academy’s promise that there will be consequences is also severe. Let’s not even speculate about what would have happened if Smith was white, or Rock was transgender. Fortunately, both performers are about on the same level in the hierarchy of public opinion.

It might also be noted that in general, American show business is known for its rather dark humor and freedom of expression. One usually remembers remarks that concern politics. In particular, the Oscars have always been very harsh on George W. Bush and Donald Trump. Still, there have also been some other jokes that were simply below the belt. For example, in 2020, when asked which director nominees were missing, Rock exclaimed at the top of his voice: “Vaginas!” And it’s easy for American witticisms to become personal. Seth MacFarlane sang “We Saw Your Boobs” at the Oscars in 2013, detailing what movies and under what circumstances the actresses in the audience had bared their breasts. And nobody slapped anyone — those are the rules of the game.

And now, on the one hand, we have a husband publicly and chivalrously deciding to defend his wife’s honor. And on the other, we have an act of public violence. As if to say that insults and offenses will now have much more significant consequences than a lawsuit, for example. The whole of American society will now be busy making sure that this precedent does not become the rule. One way to accomplish this is to include Smith in the grand scheme of cancel culture.

Cancel culture has long extended beyond the U.S. and has become a global phenomenon. One does not have to wait for a court decision or even a lawsuit or complaint to cancel someone or something. Rock, understandably, is unlikely to file a complaint unless he is pressured to do so. The world of culture and, broadly speaking, civilization, is rapidly dividing into active, passionate “tribes.” It is a presumptive crime not to join one or to violate its written or unwritten rules. Over the past 10 years, many people’s careers, reputations, mental health and legacy have been destroyed, even though they have not been proven guilty of anything. The “victims” most often do not go public for years, as in the case of Roman Polanski.

There is nothing specific you can do to “undo” the cancellation. But you only need to refrain from participating in the “tribal” movement to get canceled. Use enough of the “wrong” words, fail to introduce new feminist terms or use increasingly complex gender definitions. The reason can be anything: A friendship with those who are “disrespectful,” silence when the “tribe” forces you to speak out. For instance, how difficult it must be to watch a Woody Allen film and not say anything, especially since, until recently, it was a huge honor to star in his movies. The list of reasons goes on. A refusal to sign a document when the wording is confusing, or an unwillingness to ask for forgiveness for something you haven’t done. This applies to strangers, one’s community; anything the tribe might consider a sign of being unreliable.

Cancel culture and tribalism are among the most dangerous phenomena of our time. However, it would seem that humanity should have learned from the 20th century to distrust the group think generated by those experienced with itFor example, Mikhail Romm’s film “Ordinary Fascism” was made nearly half a century ago in Russia. At the same time, a new wave of cinema in the West presented individualism as the way to resist all kinds of collective manipulation.

All this has been forgotten, and there is a witch hunt taking place on an unprecedented scale. Smith may be its latest victim. Slapgate will not only destroy him but also many others who are simply suspected of being “violent.” However, Smith’s impulsive, accidental and provoked act deserves much deeper reflection and perhaps a more fundamental cultural change. Unfortunately, no one wants to think about it now. The slap video is being shared online, and no one will watch beyond the slap. Smith’s long and rambling apology has already been forgotten. But there is an excellent new reason to go on a witch hunt. Soon we will probably hear about new “predators” who have been “stopped.” And nobody is immune from suddenly finding themselves in a cage — ridiculed and “canceled.”

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About Nikita Gubankov 99 Articles
Originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, I've recently graduated from University College London, UK, with an MSc in Translation and Technology. My interests include history, current affairs and languages. I'm currently working full-time as an account executive in a translation and localization agency, but I'm also a keen translator from English into Russian and vice-versa, as well as Spanish into English.

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