Free Speech

Will Smith Reminds Us Why Words Should Not Be Equivalent to Violence

A wake-up call for the woke


Last night at the Oscars, Chris Rock made a dumb joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, which prompted her husband—Will Smith—to walk up on stage and slap him across the face. In the year 2022, we are unaccustomed to witnessing notable public figures engage in spontaneous acts of violence, and thus the slap is all anyone can talk about. My colleague, Eric Boehm, had this take.

I agree with him, but this is definitely a two-take event. Additionally, I would like to note that Will Smith has reminded everyone precisely why it is so dangerous to erode the critical post-enlightenment distinction between words and actions. This distinction was a social innovation that made violence less necessary and thus less common; woke liberals trying to reassert the equivalence between speech and violence are (perhaps inadvertently) harkening back to a more barbaric time.

For most of human history, people did in fact live their truth: Speech was violence, and anyone who said something offensive could invite reprisal. People who offended their neighbors would engage in blood feuds for generations. People who offended the political authorities could be dismembered. People who offended the religious authorities could be burned to death. Speech was not viewed as some special, separate category of behavior: Impugning another person's reputation could be considered a provocative act, the same as striking him in the face.

Letting people kill each other every time they get upset about something is not a great way to run a society. Thankfully, over the past three hundred years, many advanced civilizations have evolved cultural norms that delineate words and actions. It's not a universal rule, of course: People do still come to blows after quarreling, though the fact that they can be arrested for such conduct tends to discourage it. Over time, it has become less and less common to encounter reciprocal violence, outside of a few exceptional scenarios: prisons (which contain disproportionate numbers of anti-social people), schools (where kids are still learning how to socialize), and, sometimes, bars (where alcohol lowers inhibitions).

On Twitter, Bridget Phetasy says that Smith's slap shows that "we've reached the inevitable conclusion of 'words are violence.'" The Atlantic's Elizabeth Bruenig pushed back:

They're both right. People attacking each other is what results from a norm of "words are violence"—and we know this because it was the norm for most of human history. That's not so much the case now, but it always could be again. It's why a healthy level of contempt for Smith's behavior is the right attitude. Don't hit people, even if you dislike what they say.

And don't be this person.