It makes sense that Chris Rock is still thinking about the Slap. Being spanked on live TV by Will Smith while presenting at the Oscars is a more scandalous situation than most people will ever experience in their lifetime. It was weird! Rock has a right to be confused and upset.
But it makes no sense to extrapolate from this highly specific situation a larger argument about the so-called cancel culture. That’s unfortunately what Rock did in his latest special, Selective outrage, which premiered live on Netflix on Saturday. In it, Rock jokes that Smith is the epitome of the “wakefulness sickness” currently plaguing America, in which everyone practices “selective outrage”, aiming at anyone fashionable to dislike, while telling uncomfortable truths about ignores other people. Rock compares Smith to hypocritical music fans. Even though Michael Jackson and R. Kelly committed “the same crime,” people just “cancelled” Kelly. Although “everyone called [Smith] a bitch,” Smith hit Rock alone.
It’s a weak argument all the time. Other writers have already pointed out that the first example requires its own selective ignorance; Kelly retains a lot outspoken fans. But even if Kelly were a good example of an artist unfairly removed from the platform, his situation translates poorly to Rock’s. Kelly sexually abused minors; Rock made a bad joke about Smith’s wife. Kelly was sentenced to 30 years in prison, after which some fans stopped listening to his music; Smith slapped Rock, which most people agreed was unwarranted, even before Smith himself apologized. The fouls and penalties that come into play are so different that it hardly makes sense to put them in adjacent sentences. These situations only seem related if you take them out of context and present their skeletal remains as evidence of “cancelling culture”—or, as Rock puts it, “selective outrage.”
To be fair, he tries to differentiate his perspective from the usual right-wing talking points. He emphasizes the problem of selectivity rather than outrage; he tries to create his special cohesion around the ridiculousness of hypocrisy, rather than the plight of censorship. Some of his better jokes hit that exact note, like when he makes fun of Lululemon for saying it’s anti-hate—when they’re selling $100 yoga pants, Rock jokes, “they hate the poor.” But it remains unconvincing that Rock’s real problem with Smith is his hypocrisy. Rock’s problem with Smith is that he beat him on live TV.
And that’s fine! It’s okay to be upset about that, and it’s even okay to milk that moment for all it’s worth and then some until you get a one-hour special and a nice Netflix deal. But it’s annoying to pretend that this schoolyard spit says something about society’s ills. Smith acted in a manner that was unpredictable and lawful, but he did so at a private event for the Hollywood elite, where Rock was giving a presentation because he is a member of that aristocracy. This is not the behavior of a prototypical brainwashed leftist, on a continuum with “typing out awake tweets on a phone made by child slaves.” It’s the behavior of one man, once, under very unique circumstances.