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

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. We are not used to seeing public figures engaging in violent acts. The slap is the only thing anyone talks about. Eric Boehm (my colleague) had the following take.

He is right, however this event will be a dual-take. It is also important to mention that Will Smith reminded us all why it was so risky to lose the crucial post-enlightenment distinction of words and action. This distinction is a social innovation which made violent behavior possible. 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 the majority of human history, humans lived their truths: Speech Was Violence and those who say something offending could be subject to reprisal. People who insult their neighbors could get into blood feuds that will last generations. People who offend the political authority could be killed. People who offend religious leaders could be executed. Speech is not considered an exclusive, distinct category of behavior. Impugning someone’s reputation can be considered provocative, as could striking him in his face.

It is not the best way to manage a community. Over the past 300 years, advanced civilizations developed culture norms which delineate what words mean and how they should be used. Although it is not an accepted norm, people still have disputes after they argue, but the fact that they could be charged for their actions tends to dissuade them from doing so. It has been less frequent to see reciprocal violence over time. This is except for a handful of exceptional situations: schools, prisons, and bars, which contain more anti-social individuals.

Bridget Phetasy is on Twitter saysSmith’s slip shows that Smith has reached “the inevitable conclusion of words are violence’.” AtlanticElizabeth Bruenig of was pushed back

Both are right. They attack each other It is what results from a norm of “words are violence”—and we know this because it Was The norm throughout most of human history. This is not true now, but could easily be. A healthy amount of contempt for Smith’s actions is the best attitude. Even if they aren’t what you want, don’t strike people.

Don’t do it!