Will Smith vs. Chris Rock: The psychology behind the slap


LOS ANGELES (NewsNation) – One week after the so-called “slap heard around the world,” questions remain and the impact of the incident is still unfolding.

In the week since actor Will Smith smacked comedian Chris Rock at the Oscars for making a joke about his wife, Smith has resigned from the Motion Picture Academy. His resignation came days after the board met to begin disciplinary proceedings against him. Debate lingers about whether Smith was asked to leave the awards ceremony after striking Rock.

Rock did not file charges after joking, “Jada, I love. ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it.” Jada Pinkett-Smith has a hair loss condition.

Appearing Sunday on “NewsNation Prime,” board-certified psychiatrist Dr. Sue Varma gave her insight into the psychology behind the slap. Varma serves as a fellow at the American Psychiatric Association and says she has not professionally seen either Smith or Rock as clients. So, what did she make of the incident?

“As a psychiatrist, my role, whenever I see these things, is not to judge, but to understand where a person is coming from. So I want to say that while I’m not taking any sides here, I’m not saying that one person was right and one person was wrong, my assessment of this is that I do think Will Smith initially saw this as humorous. Look, he’s in entertainment, he’s been in comedy, you know, A-list actor. This is not a world that’s unfamiliar to him.

“While the Oscars are a family night, we do expect that some people are supposed to get roasted. However, thinking about who is getting roasted here, which is his wife, and it’s about a medical condition, I think that at some point when he saw her facial expression, he took the queue from her that the line has been crossed and something had to be done about it,” Varma said.

Why does Varma think Smith’s mood may have changed after Rock’s joke?

“We know that there was no verbal communication [between Will and Jada], but I do think our society puts so much emphasis on men protecting women, which I believe absolutely they should, but this has given rise to these conversations about toxic masculinity and how can we protect people and is violence the answer. That’s really what’s concerning to all of us in this situation,” Varma said.

“Men are taught to suppress emotions except for anger and they’re supposed to wear their anger as a badge of honor. We look at anger and it’s actually considered a good thing, the right thing is to get angry, to be hard, to act like a man, to defend the honor of your woman, but we know that you can defend honor in so many ways.”

“Where’s that fine line where you’re defending somebody and respecting them? And then crossing the boundary into aggression and violence?” she continued.

In Smith’s book, he mentions abuse in the household he grew up in as a child. NewsNation Prime host Rudabeh Shahbazi asked whether Varma believes this may have played a role in the incident.

“You know, it can. Just because somebody is predisposed to violence doesn’t mean they will be predestined to it. That’s really important. There are a lot of people who have grown up in homes where they have seen violence as a way of settling battles, as a way of communicating, as a way of expressing emotions, because like I said, anger and being hardened, is some of the only ways that some men know how to communicate.

“I think that what happens here in this case is impulsive, like almost (a) decision is made, not even on a cortical higher order level. … One of the beauties of being human is that we do have higher order thinking and we can suppress emotion and we can override them. We can override our rage,” Varma said.

“Just because we saw violence doesn’t mean we have to act on it as an adult.”

While Smith issued a public apology about the matter, Rock has only addressed the slap briefly at a comedy show in Boston, saying he was still “kind of processing what happened.” As far as the timing of Smith’s apology goes, Varma believes it’s better late than never.

“I was touched. As much as I was angered to see the slap that all of us were upset to see, the apology did strike a chord in me,” Varma said.

“It will be interesting to see what comes from this. We’re all human.”

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