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Will Smith’s viral slap of Chris Rock is a moment that will be engraved in minds for years to come, however, in the days since the conversation has shifted with many wondering what really provoked Smith.
An executive-level industry insider who was present in the moment when the assault took place relayed to Fox News Digital hours after the incident that “people were more stunned at ‘I’ve never seen Will Smith aggressive'” as Smith has historically exuded a dynamic and high-spirited personality – often crossing the line into cheesy territory.
So after years of witnessing a wildly public life that has rarely, if ever, seen Smith act out violently, the world is left asking: What happened? Was Smith’s reaction to Rock’s “G.I. Jane 2” joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head more “Hancock”-like – in which every well-intentioned feat leaves behind collateral damage – or will Smith be remembered by Hollywood as “Enemy of the State?”
Fox News Digital spoke with two leading psychologists who were watching in real time when Smith casually strolled on stage and smacked Rock. A key takeaway is that Smith might have been triggered by something that had been lingering long before the 94th Academy Awards went down in television infamy.
DEFENDING HIS WIFE?
“It sounds like he felt that the joke really disrespected his wife … he felt as a husband he needed to protect her, and the best way to protect her is to disrespect back,” Madison Park Psychological Services Founder and Director Dr. Yasmine Saad told Fox News Digital about what she believed prompted Smith’s reaction. “It’s basically in order to hit someone you have to feel hurt, you have to feel triggered, and in order to feel triggered, there has to be a strong emotion behind it.”
Pinkett Smith has been outspoken about having the autoimmune disease known as alopecia, which creates patchy hair loss. In order to mitigate the visual effect and own her condition, Pinkett Smith decided to shave her head bald according to her social media account.
Saad explained that alopecia is a difficult illness for anyone to deal with but especially for women, “because you lose your femininity, you lose a symbol that is so important for women, and I’m sure this must have been a tough subject for their family and having someone joke about it in public can feel very humiliating and disrespectful.”
The doctor maintained that in a public setting, the overall “lack of consideration” on behalf of Rock could have sent Smith over the edge.
“There are two issues here. One is that this is a very private intimate subject of suffering,” she said. “Alopecia isn’t something that is so easy to maneuver, and it’s something that is very public but very intimate and making it more public in a fun, joking way feels very disrespectful to the intimacy of what it is and to the pain of what people with alopecia are going through, so it is disrespect.”
INTO THE “RED ZONE”
Ccelebrity psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo echoed Saad’s sentiment. Lombardo also relayed to Fox News Digital that Smith appeared triggered by the comedian’s joke and ultimately was sent into the “red zone,” leading him to act impulsively without assessing the ramifications of his actions.
Lombardo described the “red zone” or “distress” in psychology as happening when individuals are dealing with high levels of stress or any negative emotion that a person does not want – including sadness, fear, anxiety, worry, guilt or shame.
She added that in thinking about distress on a continuum from zero to 10, the red zone occurs when distress levels hit seven out of 10 or higher, and in return, “we don’t think rationally, and we don’t act rationally. Our limbic system basically hijacks our rational thinking.”
She believes that a semblance of distress might have triggered the “Concussion” actor to act out of his normal character.
“Will Smith was sitting there and if you watched him, he was kind of laughing. Then he looked over at his wife and sees her face – and obviously, I haven’t spoken with Will, so I don’t know what’s going through his mind – but my guess is there was already stress of the evening because he’s up for an Academy Award, there was already stress that evening because there was already a comment made about their marriage and the open marriage, and they’ve been getting a lot of press about that lately,” Lombardo explained.
“So I’m sure all of the stress is on him as well as just being concerned about his wife and how she’s dealing with the health issue of alopecia,” the psychologist added. “So I don’t know what it was, but my guess is there are a lot of ingredients that went into increasing that distress level until it got to be in the red zone. And again in the red zone, that limbic system is our fight-or-flight mechanism. And it hijacks rational thinking. So my guess is he popped right into the red zone. He wasn’t thinking actually like, ‘Wow, there are millions of people watching. This probably isn’t a good idea.’ He just reacted.”
Pinkett Smith’s “Girls Trip” co-star actress and fellow comedian Tiffany Haddish told People magazine that she saw no issue with Smith’s reaction and felt it was a badge of honor for defending his wife against an unwarranted verbal attack.
“When I saw a Black man stand up for his wife. That meant so much to me. As a woman, who has been unprotected, for someone to say, ‘Keep my wife’s name out your mouth, leave my wife alone,’ that’s what your husband is supposed to do, right? Protect you,” she said.
She continued: “That meant the world to me. And maybe the world might not like how it went down, but for me, it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen because it made me believe that there are still men out there that love and care about their women, their wives.”
Dr. Saad pressed to Fox News Digital that she completely understands that side of the coin and everyone is different how we all react in high-stress situations.
“Someone who goes and hits someone to protect the respect of your wife is somebody who wants good in the world,” she said. “It’s not somebody who wants violence because the intent of the action is to protect and to restore respect. Unfortunately, it’s done in a way that ends up being violent and aggressive so once you regain your senses and logic you realize this is kind of against your morals and likely that’s exactly what [Smith] is feeling because he says there’s no place for violence in a world of love – he points to it – this is a gesture of love what Will Smith did for his wife and unfortunately, it was not channeled in the right way and so what is really important to understand is that this was his attempt to protect and restore respect.”
She added: “This is a man who wants a loving world and felt that this was so not loving and unfortunately, he acted in a way that is opposite to a world he wants and so, therefore, there’s regret.”
A TEACHABLE MOMENT
Dr. Lombardo says it’s important to realize that while we can’t control what other people say or do, especially as celebrities, we can control our emotional reaction to it. “And it’s not easy, but a trigger is only a trigger if you let it be a trigger. So if I were working with Will, I would say, let’s help you get rid of this trigger. You know, the stress that put you into the red zone when they talk about your open marriage or when they talk about your wife’s health condition because slapping someone, first of all, is never the answer and not only is it not going to stop it, but now more people are going to be saying things about him that are going to upset him. But again, that’s an opportunity for us all to remember — we can’t choose what people do or say, but we change our emotional reaction to it.”
Saad also said that the moment was a huge eye-opener for people to weigh the risk/reward of making a snap decision to solve their issues with violence.
“Acting on one’s emotion impulsively is never a good way because then you can always regret it because there will always be an imbalance reaction because your emotions are trigged, and they are very strong, so any action based on strong emotion will be a too strong reaction,” she explained.
“So you can see from the apology, he regretted it afterward, but he felt that, at that moment, it was justified, and I think basically this action, it’s a split decision to act, because not acting, being left hopeless, not being able to protect his wife, is a worse emotion than being powerful and restoring the score, basically.”
SHOULD SMITH HAVE BEEN REMOVED?
“That’s a tough question because it really set a precedent for sure,” said Lombardo. “But he did go back into a seat, and it didn’t appear that he was still violent after that. I mean, we’ve all seen either in person or movies – the bar fights where people hit someone, and then they’re trying to hit them again. He wasn’t doing that. I think it probably would have been a positive statement for the Academy to have done that to say that ‘we do not condone violence at the Academy Awards,’ but they didn’t.
“A lot of people were watching, and they were watching not only how Will reacted, how Chris reacted, but also how everyone else reacted.”