Last weekend, Will Smith walked on stage at the Oscars and slapped Chris Rock for making a joke about his wife. Since that moment, my phone and inbox have been inundated non-stop with people (friends, family, readers, journalists) wanting my “take” on the situation. After all, I just spent three years co-writing a book with Will about mastering one’s emotions. What the hell?
First, let’s begin with the obvious: What he did was unacceptable. What I write here is not meant to justify or excuse his actions. He has already apologized to Chris and others in a public statement. These are simply my personal thoughts and observations, since so many have asked for them.
Second, let’s get my biases out of the way. I am no longer professionally involved with Will. We have no solid plans to work together on anything else at the moment. Other than a couple short texts, I have not seen or spoken to him since our book tour ended in mid-November. That said, I do really like the guy and consider him a friend. I also like many of the people who work for him and consider them friends.
To the people who have written me long screeching emails asking why I associated myself with such a horrible person, who have claimed that I am now untrustworthy for working with him, who have criticized me for not publicly crucifying the guy: kindly go fuck yourself.
To those of you who have claimed that his actions have now tarnished my body of work: you clearly have not understood anything about my work.
What the Book Tells Us
Back in 2018, when his team contacted me about his book, my number one condition for working with Will was that his book be candid about his flaws and failures as a person. For my entire career, I have argued that it’s in confronting the worst aspects of ourselves and being open about them that we find growth and help inspire growth in others. I had no interest in presenting a beautifully polished book about a guy who never fucked up and won at everything. I wanted to dig deep into the life of one of the most universally beloved people on the planet and look at what failures and insecurities made him tick.
And for those of you who read the book, his actions last Sunday will not strike you as unfamiliar. The book had extensive discussion of his deep insecurities around failing to protect the women in his life. We talked about the culture of violence of his neighborhood and family growing up. We wrote candidly about his relationship to fighting and how, particularly when he was young, he had a propensity to start physical altercations unnecessarily. We discussed his relentless perfectionism and how he sometimes achieved that perfectionism through intimidation and fear of those around him.
Maybe you all missed the memo, but you were put on alert months ago. Literally on page one of the book, it says:
What you have come to understand as ‘Will Smith,’ the alien-annihilating MC, the bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction—a carefully crafted and honed character—designed to protect myself. To hide myself from the world. To hide the coward.
The Problem With Celebrity Worship
It feels impossible to talk about this incident without also discussing our culture of celebrity worship. Every time something like this happens, you see people dogpile on the offending celebrity with a gleeful moral righteousness, “OMG WiLl, I uSeD tO hAvE sO mUcH ReSpEcT fOr YoUU.”
Really? The guy who pretends to blow up aliens for a living?
I guess I’ve never understood celebrity idolization. Hell, I expect these people to fuck up and disappoint us. After all, they’re under 100x more scrutiny and pressure than any of us will ever be and many of them come from difficult backgrounds and struggle with mental health issues.
For years, one of the traps I’ve pointed out in my relationship advice is idealizing another person—to assume that because you love them, they must not have any problems whatsoever. In relationships, there’s a name for this: codependency. Codependency pretty much always leads to dysfunctional relationships and heartbreak.
Yet, people do this with the celebrities they love all the time. For some reason, we decide that just because a guy can shoot a basketball well, we expect him to be a great businessman, a great father, a great husband, a great community leader, to have informed and nuanced political views (that also match our own), to have upstanding ethics and little-to-no emotional dysfunction. Oh, and he has to do all this while never complaining.
Yet, it is these same codependent types that spend their lives idolizing strangers on screens who then become shocked—#ABSOLUTELYSHOCKED!!!—that so-and-so-with-the-basketball turns out to be… well, human.
It reminds me of an interview with the rapper Lil’ Wayne that I saw years ago. The interviewer kept obnoxiously bringing up the fact that Wayne had recently been arrested for drug possession, expecting Lil’ Wayne to show some sort of remorse or regret about it. Yet, he didn’t. Flummoxed, the interviewer finally asked him, “But what do you say to all of the young people out there who look up to you, who look to you to know how to live their own lives?”
Wayne responded with something like, “Man, if you need a rapper to tell you how to live, then maybe you ain’t really livin’ at all.”
The same way you can’t have a healthy loving relationship without accepting and even appreciating a person’s flaws, I would argue you can’t really be a “fan” of someone unless you’re also willing to accept and acknowledge that person’s shortcomings.
So, where does this leave us with Will? Can you accept and tolerate his shortcomings? As disappointed as I am with what he did, I can. But I have also seen his incredible generosity up front and close. I have studied the decades’ worth of wonderful things he has done for the people in his life, his community and his industry. I’ve been around him enough to know that his heart is in the right place and he’s embarrassed by what he did.
In our Twitter-driven world, I believe we’re over-optimized for moral judgment and under-optimized for forgiveness. Moral judgment comes easy and is rewarded with retweets and clicks. Forgiveness is difficult and doesn’t go viral.
One Outrage to the Next
Finally, I would like to point out that I took a lot of shit last month because of my piece about how people get worked up into a frenzy about stuff that doesn’t directly affect them and then quickly forget it and move on once their outrage becomes boring.
A lot of people interpreted the piece to imply that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine didn’t matter and proceeded to tell me how horrible of a person I was. Part of this was probably because I could have written things more clearly. But still, that was not my point.
The point was that 99% of the people losing their collective shit over Putin and Ukraine on social media will have likely forgotten or lost interest in it within a few weeks. And, indeed, that seems to be the case. How do I know? Because those are largely the same people freaking out and filling our news feeds about The Will Smith Slap these past few days.
Next month, it will be something else.