Dr. Jerome Adams
Like most people who watched the Oscars on Sunday night, I’m still processing my feelings on “the slap” that occurred between Will Smith and Chris Rock. And as has become the norm lately – from discussions on COVID-19, to Congress to Colin Kaepernick – most people have fallen into camps and viewed this situation as all or none.
You’re Team Rock and Will Smith needs to be arrested. Or you’re team Will and Chris Rock should be canceled.
But most of life isn’t binary, and there are important lessons we can take from a constructive appraisal and criticism of both men’s actions.
Disappointing to see at the Oscars
As a Black man, it deeply upsets me to see Black men go after one another for any reason.
I have been on the receiving end of criticism from other famous Black men, including a king of comedy. Though such tiffs may scratch a temporary itch, no one comes out of such interactions looking the better for it.
Worse yet, it only furthers harmful stereotypes that others have about Black men not being able to get along or control their emotions. It was painful for me to watch two men I respect greatly slap at one another (one figuratively and the other literally), while the world was watching.
As a dad, it was jarring to think my two teenage boys will see the memes coming out of this situation and think it’s OK to physically attack someone else for any reason – much less a comedic slight. Assault, homicide and violent crime rates are rising in many parts of America, and Black men already shoulder a disproportionate burden of these statistics. The last thing we need is for two of the most successful and recognizable Black men in the country to seemingly give the thumbs up to more violence.
Life can be stressful – these past two years particularly so – and many people are at their breaking points. We see that stress playing out in harmful ways, with record rates of suicide attempts, opioid overdose deaths, and in verbal and physical attacks on others.
Use Will Smith and Chris Rock to address mental health
We must promote better awareness of and attention to personal mental health, and normalize that it’s OK not to be OK. That’s why I’m working with the Pro Football Hall of Fame to show that even big, strong, famous athletes can learn how to recognize triggers, build support systems and reach out for help when needed.
It seems Smith might have had some brewing frustrations and wasn’t in the best state of mind to respond to a trigger. He could have benefited from a moment of reflection or meditation and might have responded differently. Hopefully, this can be an example for young people moving forward on what not to do, and we can promote mental wellness, and discuss healthier ways to resolve conflict.
As a doctor, one of the most troubling aspects of the affair was Chris Rock’s joke that seemed to bully Jada Pinkett Smith over her alopecia.
The Oscars are always about edgy jokes, but the jokes are usually about people’s questionable decisions and not their unavoidable medical issues. One of the rules of comedy is to punch up and not down. Few people will feel sorry for rich and famous Jada Pinkett and Will Smith, but people with medical issues – from asthma, to alopecia to addiction – are bullied every day.
Attacking someone with a chronic medical issue is always punching down. Rock’s comedy has always been biting, but you can be funny without being cruel.
I hope that he reflects on this, and that in the future Rock will become an advocate for those harmed by stigma – a stigma he helped perpetuate.
The Oscars certainly achieved its goal: People are talking about it. Unfortunately, it’s for all the wrong reasons. But there can still be a silver lining. I’m calling on Will and Chris – and all the pundits out there on Team Rock or Team Smith – to take this negative attention and turn it into a positive for mental health and productive conflict resolution, and support of people with chronic medical conditions.
We can still make this an Oscars to remember, for the right reasons.
Dr. Jerome Adams, a former U.S. surgeon general, is a distinguished professor and executive director of health equity initiatives at Purdue University. Follow him on Twitter: @JeromeAdamsMD