The Will Smith incident seems like a minor skirmish that got blown out of proportion because he’s a celebrity, but in fact this is exactly the attention such behavior needs, and it signals an important shift in society and our workplaces.
First there was the slap. Within hours the memes followed. Within a day opinion pieces. And after two or three days, the counter-opinions.
By counter-opinions I don’t mean those defending his actions. There is generally universal agreement that his choice to use violence was wrong. The counter articles tended to question why people were making such a big deal out of this.
What about Roman Polanski or Harvey Weinstein, people asked? Surely, they’re far worse.
When Sacheen Littlefeather accepted on behalf of Marlon Brando John Wayne was so incensed by her comments that he had to be restrained from attacking her.
And let’s not forget the actual war in Ukraine.
Why are people making such a big deal about (sorry, I have to say it) one little fight?
It is just a little fight between two guys. No racism, no sexism, no one went to the hospital or even really got injured. It was just one guy losing his temper. That’s small potatoes compared to those other incidents listed above. But that’s precisely why it matters and why it’s a big deal that we as a society address it.
Should the Academy have stood up to Polanski or Weinstein earlier? Absolutely. That they didn’t simply means that they were mistaken prior, not that they should continue to repeat their mistakes by staying silent in this case. By the same token consider the way members of the Academy today freely speak out against people like Putin, but their predecessors said nary a word about Hilter. How about Walt Disney’s association with anti-Semites and even Nazis? Then there’s the rampant discrimination and sexism of Hollywood throughout the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s . . let’s just say pretty much the majority of the history of the Academy, and yet the members pretty much said nothing.
we as a society have moved the bar, recognizing that we need to stand up to not only large violations, but even to small ones
It’s easy to speak out against Putin, just like it’s easy to dislike Voldemort. It’s good versus evil writ large. It’s harder to take a strong stand against what seems like a small infraction. It was just one hit; as opposed to decades of sexual assault, for example. Maybe it was just a momentary loss of control. Who hasn’t lost control for a moment? We’ve all certainly said things we regret. Clearly Smith isn’t evil, unlike Putin, the Nazis, or sexual predators.
But small things matter very much. The Broken Windows Theory suggests that small crimes like broken windows and vandalism signal that the community will tolerate such disorder and by doing so tacitly encourages other crimes, including bigger and more violent ones. Cities like New York incorporated this theory into their policing strategy and chose to address smaller crimes believing that it would also reduce larger ones. It’s considered at least partially responsible for the drop in crime in New York and other cities that employed it.
It holds true for social norms, as well. When we allow a celebrity to hit another person, or “grab someone by the p****” and afford no punishment, we signal that it is acceptable and perhaps so is more aggressive behavior, as well. When we stand up to the small behavior, we send a signal that it will not be tolerated nor will bigger transgressions.
In The Career Toolkit: Essential Skills for Success That No One Taught You I wrote about, “individuals who constantly push boundaries to nation states that literally push boundaries.” The latter was a reference to Putin who had at the time of my writing already invaded Georgia and Crimea with minimal repercussions. It was very clear that, like Hilter before him, he would see the lack of consequences as an opportunity, almost an invitation in his warped mind, to invade further, to go bigger.
this one we fight, this one we face
The average person can’t do much about Putin. We can’t shame Putin into not killing innocent people; he only responds to force and only nation states can bring that against him. But we as individuals can, and did, demand consequences for Smith. In doing so we signaled to other celebrities, politicians, and CEOs, as well as society in general, that these actions will no longer be allowed in our society and if you undertake them there will be negative consequences.
We all slip up. No one is saying Smith needs to be treated like a hardened criminal. Suggesting that his infraction is so very small compared to the others mentioned above is fair. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take it seriously. In the movie Bram Stroker’s Dracula, Anthony Hopkins playing Professor Van Helsing says, “Vampires [symbolizing evil] do exist. And this one we fight, this one we face.” In his fight of good versus evil he knows he can’t always win, but when he can, he fights the evil. That’s what we’re doing here when we stand up against minor infractions even if we know such efforts may not succeed against more powerful adversaries.
Someone who beats a co-worker should be fired. Someone who merely threatens or intimidates a co-worker requires a response, even if not to the same measure, otherwise those threats may one day become actions. Someone who inappropriately grabs or touches a coworker should be fired. Someone who inappropriately comments on a coworker's body also needs to face some consequences, or else one taboo behavior may eventually lead to another.
In standing up we are not suggesting Smith’s actions are on par with those prior violations, nor do we condone the prior silence. Rather we are saying that we as a society have moved the bar, recognizing that we need to stand up to not only large violations, but even to small ones, because the small ones lead to large ones in time. We accepted bad behavior for too long, but when it comes to inappropriate behavior our society has taken a page from Howard Beale, ”[we’re] mad as hell and [we’re] not going to take it anymore.”
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