I grew up with Will Smith. Not literally of course, but The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was one of the most familiar sitcoms on TV during my late high school days and throughout my years in college. Since then Will has been in many, many major movies. I just read this morning that his movies have raked in over 9 billion dollars in gross revenue over the years. That’s incredible.
We can act like we don’t care, and maybe there is some truth to that. But Will's name and face are extremely familiar to many if not most Americans. So, it’s no surprise that news sources have fixated somewhat on Will smacking comedian Chris Rock in the face in reaction to Chris making a joke about Will’s wife during the Oscars.
More interesting to me than the event itself has been the responses of every talking head on the planet, including me. Why write about such a frivolous event here?
Several cultural and moral realities were placed on display by this altercation. Some are so obvious and tiredly addressed that I will avoid them altogether. And I’m certainly not here to either defend or condemn Will Smith or Chris Rock.
One of the things that stands out most to me in our current cultural setting is how eager people are to condemn each other.
“Chris was out of line with his joke and got what he deserved.”
“Will was out of line for laughing at the joke.”
“Will was out of line for resorting to physical violence in reaction to a verbal offense.”
“Jada (Will’s wife) was out of line for having an affair with that young rapper.”
“The Oscars are out of line for existing at all.”
“Alopecia is not something to joke about.”
“This is just yet another attack on black women.”
The commentary and observations go on ad nauseam, as they say. I’ve read or heard statements along the lines of every one of those contrived quotes.
So why add another opinion to the rotting heap of useless opinions? Well, because we have something to learn here. I can be better. You can be better. And, we can all be more honest with ourselves and each other.
I’m sad and embarrassed for Will. I’m sorry if that offends you. I’m not trying to be controversial or contrary. It’s just that there is no doubt in my mind that he would sure like a do-over. He would love to retract his raucous statements, withdraw his feet from the stage, and his hand from Chris Rock’s face. At least, I hope he truly regrets his response.
Perhaps he could have accomplished much more if he and his wife had just gotten up and left the event, if they were truly offended by Chris’ antics. Who’s to say though. In a way, if Jada is happy with Will’s response, then maybe it’s a win for him in the end after all. And if this incident puts a governor on the mouths of coarse comics, then maybe that’s a win for all of us. But wait, there I go doing just what everyone else seems to be doing: offering unsolicited advice. Pontificating pharisaically.
I should remember Jesus’ admonition about removing the plank in my eye before trying to help someone else with the splinter or speck in theirs.
This is not to say that we can’t ever “cash in” on teachable moments. Those who live on the public stage pay a price for their success, and part of that price is that they become illustrations in the conversations of society at large. That’s life. And true freedom of speech is a vital virtue for sure. You and I can say what we will, and should be able to do so. Of course, that doesn’t mean anyone has to listen. And while generally I’m not in favor of governmental regulation of speech (censorship), I am certainly comfortable with (and in favor of) cultural consequences for the use of foolish language.
Where am I going here?
On the one hand, we should be able to laugh at ourselves. You can joke about my bald head or my red hair or my inability to pronounce certain words correctly (like every word that starts with “wh”), and I can be secure enough to laugh with you and even to return light-hearted jabs safely. On the other hand, we should be astute enough to recognize that some people are not in a position to take humor directed at them. In such cases, we need to willingly sheath our comic weapons and chose other instruments of social interaction.
In most situations, hypersensitivity isn’t beneficial at all, unless it’s me being super-aware of what my words do to you. From that angle, it’s quite edifying indeed. The ethic at stake is respect for our fellow man. If I’m sincerely trying not to offend you unnecessarily and you are sincerely trying not to take offense, then we thereby maximize our potential to work together continually. Some of us walk around with a chip on your shoulder though, just waiting for someone to knock it off. That’s not helpful.
Dig a little deeper with me now. Why are some people so easily hurt and offended? Surely there are lots of possibilities, but among them are some considerations worth our attention.
Anxiety - if a person is already suffering from anxiety, your words and mine may only pile on more unbearable weight.
Control - people who imagine that they can force success by controlling everything around them are more likely to react negatively to anything that causes them to sense that there is something coming at them that they can’t control.
Guilt - once again, this is that old truth that opening old wounds can cause fresh pain. If a person is laboring under a sense of guilt (merited or not), their view of input into their lives will inevitably be distorted.
Insecurity - for many reasons, an individual may simply lack the strength necessary to absorb anything that even remotely resembles rejection, criticism, or correction. The human mind is very a complex machine.
Pain - it has been said that hurt people hurt people. Or, hurting people hurt people. Along those lines, when a person is already hurting, the least disturbance can make matters exponentially worse.
Temperament - sometimes it really is nothing more or less than mere personality. Some folks can take a joke (or a rebuke); others, not so much. Personalities are warped by the fall just like everything else is.
Training - the familiar question of whether our problems are a result of nature or nurture is applicable here. The answer is: both. But, in some cases nurture is a more significant factor. The bad behaviors modeled by parents and mentors are usually manifested like stink bombs in the lives of their descendants.
Abuse - perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when dealing with someone who is easily offended is this possibility; that they may be victims of horrible and inhumane atrocities in their past, or even in their present. It’s far more common than many of us would like to admit or imagine.
Unrealistic expectations - there are multiple ways that a person can look at the world through rose tinted glasses. One of the ways is to expect things to always remain tidy, comfortable, safe, and accommodating. It’s absurd, of course. But some people keep holding out hope that they will find such an environment in this world. Of course they set themselves up for repeated disappointment.
Self-righteousness - this character chooses to be offended because it makes them feel superior. There offense—even if sincere—is actually manufactured. They weaponize offenses to protect their own moral ground and ego.
Need for compassion - a whole host of the people around us are lonely, weak, failing, falling, etc. They sincerely need someone to care. When—instead of care—they encounter laughter or criticism, their need intensifies and manifests itself in the form of them being offended.
Communication style - several factors contribute to this condition, but in any case it needs to be noted that better ways of communicating can be learned. We can all learn to speak more constructively and to listen more wisely. Limited communication skills often leads to offenses.
Cognitive distortions - not just intellection limitations, but mental distractions and simple misunderstandings often lead to emotional distress. What you say is not necessarily what people hear. No matter which side of the equation we are on, it’s vital that we remember this phenomenon.
Immaturity - inexperience inevitably leads to wounds and resentment. Youth of years or youth in cosmopolitan sophistication can certainly contribute to an oversensitivity that requires constant attention and mediation.
Fear of danger - perhaps this one encompasses several others as well, but for sure it needs to be pointed out that fear is a liar which skews the interpretation of all incoming data. Fear makes monsters out of reason and good faith.
Culture - finally, we live in a day and time when being offended is a rite of passage. If you aren’t offended, then you aren’t cool. It’s a power play, used almost universally these days for self promotion.
So, in the end this is about giving people the benefit of the doubt; assuming the best whenever we can.
If someone says something to us (perhaps humorous or maybe even seriously critical) that could merit a sense of offense, consider other options. Do I have to become offended here? What will the result be if I take offense? How about if I shrug it off and move on? While there may not be a one-size-fits-all solution, becoming perpetually offended is certainly a poor one-size-fits-all strategy.
On the other hand, if you or I have the opportunity to speak into someone’s situation, we need to try to walk a mile in their shoes before we engage the gears of our gums. We may have some cleaver line that seems harmless and humorous from our perspective, but we need to do all that we can to consider how it will sound from their perspective. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” is the golden rule. And may I add, “…if you were in their place.” In other words, don’t just think of what you would want them to say to you, but think of what you would want anyone to say to you IF YOU WERE THEM… with all their foibles, idiosyncrasies, experiences, and perspectives. That’s not easy. It will take great focus, tremendous attentiveness, and much assistance from the Holy Spirit to accomplish this feat. But it will be worth it. We may not be avoiding embarrassing ourselves in front of 16 million people on live television, but our sphere of influence is significant nonetheless. Living a life that doesn’t require our peers to tiptoe around us is an incomparable gift to them (i.e. - don’t be easily offended). Likewise, living a life that doesn’t leave carnage and corpses in our wake is Christlike, wise, and kind (i.e. - don’t offend others unnecessarily).
Caveat 1: truth is offensive to those who hate truth. Regardless of who it offends, we shouldn’t compromise our position on cardinal matters. But shouldn’t it be our position that offends, not our disposition?
Caveat 2: in Luke 17:1 it is recorded that Jesus said, “It is impossible but that offenses will come: but woe to him, through whom they come!” Even our best efforts to avoid offending and being offended will be insufficient to keep the peace forever. So, what then? Well, Jesus dealt with that just 2 verses later: “Take heed to yourselves: If your brother trespass against you, rebuke him; and if he repent, forgive him.”
Forgive. Like Jesus gave grace to the very vermin who crucified Him, forgive freely.