Image: Wikimedia Commons | Illustration: Joseph Ratliff

In a nation so often defined by growing polarization and disdain for each other, we just experienced a raw, unscripted moment that could potentially teach us something about ourselves. 

In the hurricane of reactions to what happened at the Oscars, let’s not miss this opportunity to notice and learn from the human frailty, anger and potential for forgiveness that could help us all build a bridge across differences that divide our nation, our communities, and our families.

In case you missed what happened at the Oscars, here it is in a nutshell:

Chris Rock, the comedian who often pushes boundaries, made a joke that went too far. He made a joke about how Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s wife, shaved her head. Jada has been publicly battling an auto-immune disease that also causes hair loss. Will Smith walked up on stage and smacked Chris Rock in the face. Will sat back down, and as Chris tried to continue with a smile, Will loudly with profanity berated Chris for using his wife’s name, and Chris then agreed to stop using Jada’s name. The actual exchange was muted in the live broadcast, but caught on Japanese television and shared on Twitter.

The show continued, but awkwardly at first, and the feeling in the room changed. Then Will Smith won the Oscar for best actor. Vanity Fair (Lean Left bias) covered it all well.

There has been an avalanche of opinions about what happened. A short, impartial list of the different perspectives:

To me, this is what teachers would call a “teachable moment” or, for me and the rest of us, a learning moment.

Will’s acceptance speech provided the opportunity not just for him, but for all of us to learn.

He clearly was shaken by what had just happened. He felt that he was called to be a protector, just like the person he had played in the movie “King Richard”. He said he understood that in his position he is supposed to have a thick skin. Then he quoted something that Denzel Washington had just told him:

“At your highest moment, be careful, that's when the devil comes for you.”

To me, that was a turning point. That showed a deep and honest reflection on what just happened. He then apologized to the Academy and fellow nominees (but not to Chris Rock, as some have pointed out, but he did publicly apologize to Chris Rock the next day). His tears were real, the feelings were raw, the confusion and inner conflicts were genuine. Inc. had a good piece about things we can learn about how to respond when we make mistakes.

I don’t feel qualified to offer an opinion on who was right, wrong, whether the response to what happened was too much or too little, or on many deeper issues this raises.

I do want to remind us that we are all just human beings doing the best we can. Whether it is to make people laugh, protect our family, earn respect from others, or just get through the day, most of us are just trying our best. 

I would like the modern media and pop culture to recognize that celebrities, whether in entertainment or politics, are just people. Sometimes our pop culture and media promote callousness – whatever pain they cause is OK in the service of a joke, better ratings, journalism, or a self-righteous political or moral belief. The saying “it comes with the territory” is too often used as an excuse to treat others as less than human. From the death of Princess Di to a high school kid wrongly defamed for bigotry by politicians, comedians and news journalists, the media and pop culture can often be heartless or numb to the personal consequences of their behavior.

Let’s all take a step back from callous behavior toward each other. Let’s empathize with the other person, even if they are “wrong” politically, represent the other side, or are useful fodder for a joke or political point — even if they are politicians, journalists, comedians or celebrities. And let’s see if we can forgive each other when we mess up. 

A little more human understanding and forgiveness – in all directions – can go a long way.


John Gable is CEO of AllSides. He has a Lean Right bias. 

This piece was reviewed by AllSides News Editor Joseph Ratliff (Lean Left bias).