The Slap Heard Round the World

Will Smith slapped Chris Rock during the 2022 Academy Awards Ceremony. What likely shall, or should, be the aftermath of this incident of public assault and battery?

First of all, let it be said, this was not a school yard incident between six-year-old children. Mr. Smith is a mature adult. Second, although subjectivity is always relevant in matters of humor, it can fairly be said that Mr. Rock’s joke would be considered by most people to be in very poor taste.

But is physical violence the proper response to offensive verbal statements? It is hard to maintain that it ever is, at least not in a civilized society. If anyone deserved a slap for what he did, it was Smith, not Rock. What should Mr. Smith have done after this joke went awry? He should have limited himself to a verbal response. Can anyone imagine Pope Francis or Thomas Sowell or Woody Allen or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Albert Einstein or Justice Clarence Thomas or Congressman Ron Paul or the Dali Lama acting like this in such a context? Of course not: these are all civilized people. None of them would get caught dead slapping anyone upside the head in response to a bad joke.

How should the forces of law and order react to this act of initiatory violence? In one view, crimes concern only victims. There is no such thing as a crime against “society.” Under such a legal code, the reaction would all be up to Chris Rock. He could ignore this outrage, he could sue Will Smith for financial damages for this bodily injury, he could demand physical punishment (a jail sentence) for the aggressor. As it happens, he has declined to press charges.

But we do not live under that law. Offenses such as Smith’s, to be sure, are interpreted as a violation of the rights of the victim. But they are also seen as an invasion of “society.” For this purpose, we have attorneys general. They are able to bring charges against criminals even if the victim is willing to forgive the perpetrator, as has now occurred. From the perspective of the logic of this system, how should the attorney general now act?

Clearly, he should bring charges against Mr. Will Smith for assault and battery. Why? For one thing, this was a public slap. Millions of people watched these goings on at the Academy Award Ceremonies, including impressionable youngsters. If no repercussions are visited on Will Smith, the implication taken away by them will likely be that such behavior is justified, acceptable; is, even, to be applauded. The next time someone says something thought to be objectionable, instead of a verbal reply or even a “cancellation,” physical violence will have been rendered more likely. Is that really the direction in which people of good will would wish our country to move? For another, there is a simple matter of justice. The attorney general is put into place to promote that end. If people may slap each other around without negative consequences ordinary fairness will have been denigrated and disrespected.

Then there is the economics of the matter (that is not a typographical error). A basic premise of this discipline is that demand curves slope downward. The desire to engage in criminal behavior is no exception to this primordial insight. If the “price” is high, we will tend to have less of any given item or behavior; if the price is low or non-existent, then more. What is the price of crime? It is punishment. Will Smith deserves a term in prison for his criminal act.

Mr. Smith will be seen by many as a hero for this unwarranted and despicable behavior of his. After all, he attempted to defend the honor of his wife. That is not the result enlightened people would like to see as the conclusion of this sorry event.

Reprinted with the author’s permission.

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