Taking Inspiration from the Outrageous

By Alex Trachsell

Will Smith in a suit and tie, with a smile on his face

Ah, another school year comes to a close, and the last thing I want to do is think back on my studies. And when I say this, I mean I don’t want to think about my studies until I’m back in class, once again sleep deprived, once again ignoring my professor’s plea to read the syllabus. That’s the next time I want to think about my studies.

And I’m not just sorry for myself – I’m sorry for my professors, too. I’m sorry that avoiding looking back on the year means that I will not, under any circumstances, complete your course evaluation. This semester has done its best to equate my studies with feelings of studying way too late into the night and waking up to yet another nightmare that I’ve slept through a test. So in no circumstances will I think about my studies.

For those of you still studying for exams, you have no choice but to keep your books cracked open, but I bet that, when exams are over, you won’t be running to catch up on your field’s latest literature. I bet that you won’t be eager to think about course selection for next year. I bet that, if you’ve lined yourself up with some academic projects this summer, you probably wouldn’t mind being able to put them off for another month or four. But whether you’ve finished your exams or you never had any to begin with, I think the feeling is the same and the exam season is just the cherry on top of a semester-sized pile of burnout.

Of course, now that you don’t have an excuse of “I’m studying for X, Y, and Z,” you find yourself pressured into strange social gatherings where people you see twice per year say “So, what was your favourite course this year?” Then you think Oh, I don’t want to think about this, so you say “Um, social and cultural theory, I guess. It’s, like, the study of society… and of culture. It’s about questions like ‘Is society best explained by structural forces or individuals, and how do these explanations account for racial inequality and…’” You stop as you realize their eyes have glazed over. Then your suddenly estranged family member says “Jeez, sounds complicated!” before finding the first excuse to get out of the conversation. What fun you are.

In fact, I was recently at one of these family meetings when my father (who I do see more than twice per year) asked me if I had heard what happened with Will Smith and Chris Rock at the Oscars. Of course, I said I hadn’t. In fact, all I know about Will Smith is that he’s in some kind of meme about looking at the sun and is seemingly in some kind of family business with Willow, Jayden, and Sam Smith. Then there’s Chris Rock. I also don’t know who he is (insert “you’ve been living under a rock!” joke here), but, like the Smiths, I assume he’s in some kind of celebrity-family business with his son, Kid Rock. In case you’re also in the dark, there’s already a 5154 Wikipedia article on the matter. In brief, Chris Rock made a joke about Jada (Will Smith’s wife) going bald, which Will Smith found pretty funny (and Jada didn’t). Then Will strolled onto the stage, punch-slapped Chris Rock in the face, made a teary-eyed apology to the Academy after winning Best Actor, and then partied for the rest of the night.

Anyway, since everyone had heard of it, my family turned to me and all I could manage was “That’s amazing.” After all, I don’t think I had seen something that was so attention-grabbing and, simultaneously, such an amazing mix of different disciplines. My first instinct was to think about whether Rock’s joke was wrong, but before I could, I realized that the event’s security didn’t do anything before or after the incident. Suddenly I was enraged at Smith. What a privileged git you’d have to be to assault someone over a joke and be able to sit back down untouched.

Then my habits from studying cinema and English kicked in. Did Smith feel entitled to violence because he acts in mainstream movies, where a little violence to get things done is seen as acceptable, if not outright applauded? After all, didn’t The Men Who Wear Black Suits (Like Most People Who Wear Suits) erase people’s memories when it suited them? That seems a tad more invasive than a little stiff-wristed slap.

And it’s not just violence – many seemingly “backwards” behaviours are actually encouraged by the norms of certain communities. For example, Matthew Desmond writes in Evicted how many African American men abandon their partners and children when they can’t financially support them. This pattern isn’t just a matter of throwing away responsibility for fun. Instead, it’s motivated by the fact that it’s often seen as more shameful for men to be unable to support their family than it is to walk away from them. Maybe Smith thought it would be less shameful, based on the intersection of communities that he exists in, for him to assault Rock than be complicit in his wife’s hurt feelings. Maybe, what Will Smith did is morally right within parts of the African American community. And why should we be so surprised? We often claim to accept that different cultures have different values and maybe this is a consequence of that belief. How can we tell all of the different cultures that they can feel free to enjoy their own values but then act surprised when these different values lead people to act differently than we would?

Before I knew it, my family had moved on and had begun talking about something else. “That’s amazing” ended up being my only comment on the matter. I couldn’t say more because I was busy thinking to myself Wow, taking social and cultural theory this year was a really good idea. I need to see what 400-level courses I should take if I want to learn more stuff like that. I started looking through the course calendar to determine what courses I want to take next year (and while I was there I even sacrificed some of my precious time to fill out my course evaluations).

Overall, Will Smith, your outrageous decision to hand-heckle Chris Rock is, I think, inexcusable. However, I really don’t care what I think about Smith because the important part was that I was once again thinking about my studies. Sometimes, the outrageous motivate us to use the tools we’ve learned more than any lecture or lab does. If this semester’s burnout hasn’t taught you this lesson, the outrageous is just another reason to keep your head up all year round.

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