When Will Smith impulsively launched himself to the stage recently, invisible 7-year-olds, clad in Superman capes, a “Pow! Bam!” bubble over their heads, followed along too as the small hands of others silenced, powerless, bullied, bypassed, teased and taunted, fueled the slap that tore across Chris Rock’s reddened face. I walked up there with him, too.
In cartoons and comedy clubs, in school cafeterias and family celebrations, bullying and sarcastic assaults often come with a side of bacon and a big paycheck.
We’re taught when someone belittles us to take the high road and toughen up, that “they’re just kidding,” but “kidding” is code for tearing your heart out of your body without anesthesia. It hurts.
At a recent celebratory dinner with extended family and friends, there are warm greetings followed by not-so-funny-comments from you-know-who. Everyone at the table laughs when you-know-who makes yet another obnoxious, sarcastic, unwelcome comment to me, or someone I love. I’m hurt and silenced by that raw nasty remark and bleeding through my pores yet not surprised when all agree, “Oh, that’s how he is! He’s just kidding!” Pow. Bam. Another disparaging comment comes along with the side of bacon and another basket of bread. Everyone laughs. I smile and swallow my French toast and my feelings. I swallow hard.
Sarcasm, from the Greek sarkazein “to tear flesh like a dog,” isn’t just about being funny; it abets a tacit acceptance of verbal violence and the witnessing of weaponized words. It hurts us and others but is often richly rewarded. We laugh at the jokes, even when the joke is on us, and it’s not acceptable to say something simple, like “That hurt my feelings” without looking like a crazy person or someone who just-can’t-take-a-joke.
Cartoon heroes don heroic tights and shiny capes but real-life verbal bullies are less conspicuously attired. We imagine they look like the Big Bad Wolf or that man over there with stinky breath and a toothpick jammed between broken teeth who’s sizing up the cashier and licking his lips while loudly complaining about his cold food.
But there’s no way to tell. Real life verbal assaulters are often our friends and family heroes, beloved uncles or grandpas, funny aunts and silly cousins. Generous and kind, charming and funny, but like Jekyll and Hyde, there are two of them. They take care of things, bring the best gifts to the party, tell great stories, order extra appetizers, then launch aggressive verbal asides and unkind jocular jabs between bites.
Emotional violence abounds. Why is it okay for us to publicly humiliate others under the guise that we’re just being funny? Is there a difference between disagreeing with someone’s ideology and making fun of how they look?
The duality gets murky. Trump was justifiably vilified for mocking a reporter with a disability but late-night comedians mock Trump’s physical appearance and we all laugh. I laugh, too. On Saturday mornings, we devoured Frosted Flakes and laughed when Porky Pig stuttered, when Popeye punched Bluto, or Tom hit Jerry, or Abbott bullied Costello and as Rodney Dangerfield and Don Rickles digested us all. It was funny. No one asked Costello how he felt.
The pain and rage inter-spliced in that seven second silence after the Big Slap live in us all.
Shrouded in shame, many invisible-silent-others walked up to the stage right behind Will Smith and screamed their biggest, loudest, most silent screams. I walked up there with him, too.
Originally published Times Union April 22, 2022
Photo Illustration by Tyswan Stewart / Times Union