I don't know whether the Will Smith slap is a symptom of his toxic masculinity, or his great love for his wife, or the end of comedy, or if the response to it was a by-product of society's racism, or the ultimate expression of cancel culture. I don't suppose it will signal the death of hot-take culture either, but we can only hope.
The episode, for those who have been marooned offshore on an oligarch's yacht, unfolded at Sunday night's Oscars. Comedian Chris Rock made a hurtful joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith's shorn head, which is a result of her alopecia. Pinkett-Smith rolled her eyes. Her husband initially seemed to honk with laughter, but seconds later was striding on to the stage where he slapped Rock. "Keep my wife's name out of your f**king mouth," he yelled, twice. He went on to win the gong for Best Actor and make a rambling speech in which he declared himself a "vessel of love" and apologised – though not to Rock.
It's hard to imagine why people feel the need to do this, other than that the internet has turned us into toddlers
At first, the collective response was to merely gawp. By mid-morning hot takes were being formulated, retweeted, deleted. By lunchtime – the equivalent of half a lifetime in the online slipstream of analysis, reactions, projections – the interpretation had begun to splinter into various factions. The slap was a sign of toxic masculinity. No, the joke was a sign of toxic masculinity. Will Smith was defending his wife. Violence is never okay. The slap was a slap to all women. The slap was a slap for all women. Will Smith was acting out some childhood trauma. Smith should be arrested. Calling for Smith’s arrest is a sign of all that is wrong with the world today.
Others decided the slap was a blow against "roast comedy" or misogyny or ableism or "texturism", which is the preference for Eurocentric hair textures. Parallels were drawn to Ukraine, to the Kentaji Brown Jackson supreme court nomination hearings, to Trump. A few suggested white people should keep schtum on it to avoid indulging in what Tayo Bero of the Guardian characterised as "performative pearl clutching" or being "downright racist". Writer Joyce Carol Oates saw it as a relic of a bygone era "when such incidents would be cheered as valiant and chivalrous". Some of my favourite takes involved people imagining he had slapped someone else: Amy Schumer or Betty White of the Golden Girls, who "could easily have fallen backwards and cracked her skull". Which she easily could, if she wasn't already dead.
Clearly, there is something deeply rewarding about feeling you're part of a community of people gathering around the virtual fire to dissect the village gossip
Even by the standards of today's online world, the collective response followed a dizzying arc. By the afternoon of that first day, the hottest hot take on social media was to announce that you had nothing to say; your silence would in itself be your statement. Obviously, this required going online to declare that you had nothing to say. It's hard to imagine why people feel the need to do this, other than that the internet has turned us into toddlers. If we're not banging a metaphorical spoon off a saucepan somewhere in cyberspace, spewing out sharp, smart opinions on Ukraine or Leo Varadkar or Lizzo's shapewear line, do we even exist anymore? New York magazine set itself the task of identifying "Slap takes"; by Friday, it had counted 78 including Smith's own – "love made me do it."
Being extremely online, as many of us now are, is exhausting. It demands instantaneous certainty on an endless array of topics. Hot takes, by definition, must be novel, robust, witty, provocative, impervious to takedown. Patricia Lockwood’s novel, No One Is Talking About This, brilliantly fillets this futile, ludicrous facet of online culture. She writes: “Every day their attention must turn like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate. Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole. It was not so much the hatred she was interested in as the swift attenuation, as if their collective blood had made a decision.”
It is fascinating how the internet's promise of an "open and connected world" has evolved into what is basically a frenetic online souk of meta-sarcasm and insults. Clearly, there is something deeply rewarding about feeling you're part of a community of people gathering around the virtual fire to dissect the village gossip. If there wasn't, in the region of four billion people – according to the most recent estimates – would not still have a social media account. But we have been worryingly ready to trade some of what makes us uniquely human – our attention, our capacity to change our minds – for the fleeting microdoses of dopamine that come with the illusion that you're part of something bigger. What that "something bigger" really is never explained. The relentless search for the world's worst person? The thrill of a pile-on? The further grotesque enrichment of Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey and the tech titans who want to profit from this unstoppable torrent of words, but not stand over it?
More cold takes
Believe me, I’m fully aware of the irony of a newspaper columnist griping about a pandemic of opinion. But we could do well to aim for more cold takes. More considered views. Less rapidfire contempt, less “just saying”, less certainty. More people who recognise what Socrates said about wisdom being about knowing what you don’t know. Maybe less time staring at y-our phone and more time staring out the window. Procrastination is very underrated. We might follow the lead of Rock himself. “Still kinda processing,” was all he had – wisely – come up with four days later. Processing slowly is a luxury we are rarely afforded anymore.