How Will Smith brought out tribal sensibilities with that slap

I almost didn’t read this piece this morning, because of the headline, which said, “The Will Smith slap says more about us than him.”

Molly Roberts

There was nothing wrong with the headline. It perfectly fit what Molly Roberts was saying. My problem was that I misread the word “us.”

I thought this would be written from the perspective of one of the many cultural and political tribes into which our society has divided itself, and would tell us — as individuals — whether we were good or bad people based on which of these tribes the writer belongs to.

But no, it was a way of decrying the fact that we have divided ourselves this way. It invited “us” — as a society — to realize how stupid we have been to thus divide ourselves. So I liked it, and recommend it.

Some excerpts:

Some takes surely came from the heart, but a lot of others appeared to come from the head, with everyone sorting through the slew of mini-screeds online to determine what was the right thing to think. A young woman… might have balked at the sound of flesh hitting flesh, but then reconsidered when she saw a post about Black hair, and then reconsidered again when she saw another about toxic masculinity…

Society has separated into so many groups with so many identities that sometimes we spend more time scrambling to ensure we’re aligned with whichever we consider ours than we do figuring out what we actually believe. How are we supposed to reconcile our anti-violence, and our anti-racism, and our anti-anti-feminism, all at once?…

Indeed. So we have the feminist decrying the fact that Will robbed his wife of her “agency,” and reminding us that she could defend herself just fine. And inevitably we also have the advocate of “toxic masculinity” — someone we once might have referred to as “a guy” — saying, “Yeah? I didn’t see her doing it,” which leads to a thousand indignant tweets in response as the guy struts back and forth making Tim Allen noises.

And all sorts of other people anxious to demonstrate that they’ve got their minds right, according to the standards of this or that group. So we are again reminded that social media are seldom about the expression of thought, and too often about the signaling of conformity.

Or, to use the terms I so often use these days, telling people whether we’re a one or a zero.

Here’s how the column ends:

The reaction to an event so strange, so personal, really does take place in the gut, and there’s little point in trying to take it out and put it somewhere else. The way we feel about things doesn’t always have to prove that we’re progressive, or conservative, or a crusader for or against cancel culture, or woke or still asleep. Sometimes it proves only that all of us are human.

Absolutely. And as I say even more often, people are complicated

6 thoughts on “How Will Smith brought out tribal sensibilities with that slap

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Of course, I should note that any headline can be misread. For instance, someone who doesn’t know me or the things I write about might read that headline as being about race, in the sense of saying something dismissive about black people. Because the three main characters in the drama played out at the Oscars were black, and I used the word the word “tribal.” Look at this white guy sneering at cultures he regards as “primitive!” And he speaks of their “sensibilities,” because he doesn’t regard them as rational!

    And so forth… Oh, well. I’m sticking with those words because they’re the best ones for expressing what I DO mean to say, which is very different from that.

    But one can always be misunderstood…

  2. bud

    I guess we should add another tribe. A tribe that decries people conforming to tribes. If you reject the theory that we are divided into tribes then you are unworthy. This tribe denigrates tribalism but is itself a tribe. Sort of like in high school when people were members of different cliques; jocks, brainiacs, social climbers. Then there were the misfits. But since they didn’t neatly fit into any established clique they were themselves a clique. That’s what I see at work here. An anti tribal tribe.

  3. Ken

    You missed one of the other “tribal” readings — the conservative one:
    the view that the slap was just a man standing up in defense of his wife’s (and maybe his own) honor.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Well, I certainly wasn’t trying to address ALL the tribes; I only mentioned two viewpoints. But I think I covered the one you mentioned with my second one.

      If you want more, read the column. She expands somewhat. Although she doesn’t try to list every possibility, either…

      Of course, the point was this — it was less about what each person really THINKS, deep-down, about the incident. It’s more about them expressing their views in terms that will ingratiate them to the tribe of their choice…


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