Dating and Relationship Advice

Even if you didn't watch the Oscars (as I did not), Will Smith smacked Chris Rock and then swore at him at the top of his lungs. Millions of viewers watched live Rock's comment about Smith's wife's shaved head, intended as a joke. Speculation about his actions has been flying around the internet ever since. Speculations regarding Rocks' comment (and what constitutes "joking" and when "joking" is okay, whether he knew about Jada's condition of alopecia and cultural sensitivity that such a condition could be causing). Or about the Smiths' marriage (whether Smith is in an abusive marriage or affected by his "open" marriage).

There has been commentary on Smith's "apology" afterward. One thing I haven't seen discussed is how our culture asserts a connection between love and violence and grooms us to accept abuse but call it love. Many have already pointed out how problematic it is to blame one's abusive behavior on love, as Will Smith essentially did. Love does not excuse physical violence against another person in most cases—and certainly not in the case of humor, however poor taste the joke was. Will Smith did not have to simply accept a comment that hurt his wife, though he did laugh at Chris Rock's comment until he saw Jada's reaction. He could have  said something like, "Hey man, not funny." Or some short, four-letter-word-free phrase to set a boundary with Chris Rock that would have saved them both extreme embarrassment and saved Will Smith's family members, including his 21-year-old daughter, from cleaning up after him. It is an uncomfortable historical precedent that men seem to get the luxury of the women attached to them.

But what's missing is both evident and oblique: we live in a culture in which Will Smith felt entitled enough to physically assault someone in public and not worry about recourse. This isn't just what famous, wealthy actors who fancy themselves untouchable do; this is what bullies do. Worse, this is what bullies do in the name of love. Will Smith thinks his actions are excusable because he claims to have done them in the name of love. He says so directly in the same speech as he talks about being grateful for "shining a light" — setting an example. This should concern all of us. The casual link between violence and love did not start with Will Smith. If we don't take the time to examine this moment more carefully, it won't end with him, either.

Many people pointed out the problems with Will Smith's claim that love will make you do crazy things. But he not only said that in front of millions of people watching live, but it's also posted on YouTube and other media outlets as Will Smith's apology. Excusing violence in the name of love in all but perhaps the most extreme cases (this certainly does not qualify as extreme by any objective measure) is not apologizing. So even as many rightly criticize the connection between violence, what Will Smith calls "crazy," the major outlets still label his doing so an apology. He is not apologizing for his abusive behavior toward Chris Rock in public; he condoned it.

And it's a short trip between abusing someone who hurts someone you love and hurting the one you love. The tricky part of this is the assertion of the right to do so because of love. Will Smith says, "I have a right to hit you if you say anything I don't like about my wife."

This is how many people believe that abuse and love are unavoidably intertwined. This is not to say that someone who loves you will never hurt you, but what has been modeled to us is that people have unlimited access to our minds, bodies, and emotions if they claim they love us. It has caused us to expect to be cut down, constantly criticized, and hurt by the people who claim to love us. It's not that loving others isn't often painful; love is not the right to harm others—the object of love or someone seen as a threat to the beloved. It's not that love protects us from pain— that love does not have the right to cause pain. Love does not intentionally cause pain, nor does it assert its right to do anything.

Smith gets it wrong; he is focused on his own ideas of what his beloved (or himself) need, not what she actually needs. But, because of the subtle yet insidious reinforcements of the false connections between love and "crazy" (read: violence). When we are hurt by those we love to accept it, we are primed. Yes, many people spoke out against Will Smith's actions, and both Jada and Willow called for peace and kindness afterward. Still, neither of them asked Will Smith to apologize to Chris Rock, nor did the Academy rescind his award after his less-than-role-model behavior. Whatever speaking out against Smith's actions there is merely lip service. If we had a culture that did not marry love and violence, Smith would not have felt it was okay to act the way he did.

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