Editor’s Note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Was Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own. Vision more opinion on CNN.
What does it look like to make amends for a terrible mistake?
At last year’s Oscars, actor Will Smith shocked the nation when he stormed the stage and punched comedian Chris Rock, after Rock dug into Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who was struggling with hair loss due to alopecia. Before the attack, the board of directors of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences forbidden Smith of the Oscars for the next 10 years.
The blow was astounding, partly because of Smith’s reputation as an affable family man, and partly because of the timing: In recent years, Hollywood has reckoned with the toll of male beatings and assault, though largely of women, from the #MeToo movement. The slap was an outrageous display of male violence disguised as chivalry – a man standing up for his unjust wife by punching another man who insulted her.
There may have been an era when Smith was widely praised for his actions. Fortunately, this isn’t it. But the question now is not whether Smith was justified (he wasn’t). It’s about whether he can ever regain the public’s favor, and what it means to make amends. Smith has recently returned to the public eye, and how he’s handled himself is a revealing window into American society’s failings when it comes to violence — and forgiveness.
Smith’s foray back into public life came with an interview on “The Daily Show” with Trevor Noah to promote his new movie “Emancipation,” the story of an enslaved man who not only escapes his captors but also has a direct hand in the success of the abolitionist movement in the United States. Smith, of course, has a personal and financial interest in the movie doing well, which requires audiences to go see it. But he also appears to be taking responsibility for his actions, calling the blow to the Oscars a “horrific decision” and explaining that he struggled personally — “not that that at all justifies my behavior,” he added. He said what was most painful to him was that his actions “made things difficult for other people. And it’s like I understood the idea where they say hurt people hurt people.
Smith, while he failed to publicly apologize during his own Oscars speech shortly after the incident, he did apologized for the slap multiple times, and has apologized directly to Chris Rock. He has also been clear that if members of the public will not forgive him, that is their prerogative. If anyone wasn’t ready to see a movie with Smith, he told Fox 5 in Washington, D.C., “I would absolutely respect that and give them room to not be ready.”
The kind of violent response that Smith provoked against Rock is a huge problem in the United States, often made infinitely worse by our massive oversupply of guns among the civilian population. We are a nation where far too many people meet violent deathsand that often treats violence—and gun violence in particular—way too indulgently.
But we are also a country that can be wildly ruthless and ruthless, still pretty much puritanical in our desire to divide people into good and bad. Even as the number of people behind bars has dropped, we still do imprison a higher one proportion of our population than anywhere else on Earth – and that hasn’t made us any safer.
So here’s where we are: we’re doing little to prevent highly avoidable lethal violence. But we incarcerate people, often for extraordinarily long periods, for evil (and often non-violent) acts, with little or no plan for rehabilitation, treatment or reintegration into society.
Losing Will Smith fans isn’t like locking someone up and throwing away the key. But our punitive impulses in our criminal justice system are also reflected in our cultural punishment, and in our wildly inconsistent standards of behavior.
Smith beating another man has (deservedly) scrutinized him for months, even though he has apologized and otherwise appears to be living a righteous life. But other serially awful celebs are welcomed back into the fold, or never pushed out — to name just two, men like Chris BrownWho pleaded guilty to assault for viciously beating his then-girlfriend Rihanna and has since had a string of violent rage incidents, including allegations that he had molested and raped women (to which he responded, in addition to denying the allegations, by “this b!tch lyin'” t-shirts), or men like former President Donald Trump, who is facing multiple allegations of sexual assault, harassment and misconduct (all of which he has denied).
That’s not to say we should lower the bar for men like Brown and Trump to clean it up. It means that we have to be thoughtful and consistent. Those who dismiss (by their actions and their words) the seriousness of abuse and mistreatment of others do not deserve our attention, our votes or our money. Those who have been generally sincere but commit a terrible mistake, admit it and try to make amends are not necessarily entitled to universal and instant forgiveness, but should be met with an open mind. They shouldn’t be defined by the worst decision they’ve ever made and shouldn’t necessarily lose their livelihoods.
This can be a difficult balance to strike. But there is also danger in feeding an unending hunger for public shameby never letting any apology suffice, and by enjoying the spectacle of people prostrating themselves before an unforgiving audience.
In Smith’s case in particular, he made a mistake that he understands is horrific. It is important to send and reinforce the message that violence is wrong. But it’s also important to emphasize that humans are fallible creatures, and that part of building the kind of society we want is not just to discourage and punish violence, but to encourage grace, mercy, and empathy in spite of remorse. These gifts—grace, mercy, empathy—are thankfully unlimited resources. We can spread them, including to Will Smith.