The Violence at the Oscars: What does it have to do with Self-Regulation?

I love coincidences. The latest coincidence had to do with Will Smith, his wife Jada, and Chris Rock at the 94th Academy Awards Ceremony and a piece I wrote about self-regulation for BRAZ-TESOL’s Echoes magazine. The coincidence is that I just picked up the magazine from my correspondence and that 12 hours earlier I had written something about how Will didn’t manage to self-regulate at the Oscars when he stood up, walked to the stage and smacked Chris Rock in the face.

By now I’m sure you’ve heard of the shocking scene. Rock made fun of Jada’s bald head comparing her to G.I. Jane, a movie starring Demi Moore who had to shave her head to join the Navy Seals. The problem was that in Jada’s case, her baldness is a medical condition called Alopecia. So basically Chris Rock made fun of her because of her health, which I find absolutely distasteful and violent as well. But not that strange, I’m afraid. Comedians have been doing that for a while now. It has become a sordid part of stand-up comedy over the years. To make fun of people’s problems, shortcomings, appearance, social status, gender, political ideology and the list goes on.

What was shocking to me was the fact that Will Smith actually resorted to physical violence knowing he was being watched by probably many millions of people around the world. Something that had never happened before in the history of cinema’s official celebration. When I posted something on Facebook saying that it was shocking, I got many different opinions about what happened and all of them made me think about violence in different ways and why violence – psychological or physical – usually leads to more violence. It’s all connected with the notion of self-regulation.

You might not know or believe what I’m about to tell you but we – human beings – are all primates. If you look at our evolutionary cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos, you’ll see that they settle a lot of their disputes through physical violence. Bonobos seem to be more socially tolerant than chimpanzees, though. But their inability to communicate in sophisticated ways like us and their underdeveloped prefrontal cortex means that they will most likely hit one another and even kill the members of their tribe when challenged. To be fair, we also do it all the time – just look at our history of war, homicide statistics, and genocides.

But we have a power that chimps and bonobos don’t have. Two actually. We can discuss our problems because of language – which can also be used for violence – and we can control our impulses because of self-regulation. In my article for BRAZ-TESOL Echoes, I quote O’Connor and Ammen (2012) who suggest:

Self-regulation refers to behavioral control processes, including the ability to inhibit and delay responses, flexibly shift and adapt, and maintain emotional control in order to achieve goals and direct behavior

Self-regulation is intimately related to a set of skills called executive functions. Most researchers tend to use a three-group model – there are different models – to categorize our executive functions. They are:

  • UPDATING – Working Memory: Ability to retain and manipulate distinct pieces of information over short periods of time
  • SWITCHING – Mental Flexibility: Ability to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands or to apply different rules in different settings
  • INHIBITING – Self-Control: Ability to set priorities and resist impulsive actions or responses

As you have probably noticed, self-regulation is directly connected to inhibiting. Here’s what’s interesting. Children who do not develop these executive functions well, as a result of neglect or an abusive environment, are the ones who might struggle the most in education and their professional lives. As a matter of fact, I talked about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) a while ago at a conference and based my definition of it in a report written by the CDC’s Division of Violence Prevention. Kids who are brought up in these abusive homes have higher chances of becoming violent themselves, going to jail, dropping out of their studies, drug abuse and so on.

Despite their huge success, both Will and Chris have had an added layer of difficulties throughout their entire lives. They are both black men. Will has reported witnessing his father punch his mom and feeling powerless. According to his own biography, that experience has defined his life. Will has been confronted by his wife because of his alcohol consumption. Chris has claimed, as depicted in the TV show Everybody Hates Chris, that his parents had high expectations and that he was the victim of racism and bullying. He’s been to therapy and was even diagnosed with nonverbal learning disorder. He’s spoken frankly about his addiction to porn and how it ruined his marriage.

Jada, the biggest victim of the night, hasn’t had it easy either. In fact, she has had an extra layer of difficulties. She’s not only black but also a woman in a structurally racist and misogynistic world. She’s reported that her parents had a violent relationship and that her father was drunk many times. The damage caused by these relationships probably led her to drug abuse for 20 years according to her own account.

Three successful black people who grew up in violent homes. And two of them who perpetuated the cycle of violence on one of the most glamourous and expected nights of the year. According to some sources, Chris Rock didn’t know about Jada’s health condition – but this is likely to be misleading – and his joke was not scripted. He may have come up with it on the spur of the moment. But one thing we can say for sure: he lacked the ability to inhibit the urge to publicly humiliate a black woman by making fun of her appearance that is caused by a medical condition. And that’s violent, incredibly violent.

In fact, neuroscience has identified an area that is involved in affective pain and social rejection. It’s called the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. Public humiliation, neglect, lack to recognize one’s value, and things related actually cause pain very much like being smacked in the face. The thing is, this type of pain can be far more devastating and everlasting than a slap. Louis Cozolino explains in his book The Social Neuroscience of Education that we urge for a sense of belonging because of how we evolved. Our cortex increased as a result of larger social groups and being excluded or stigmatized in front of our peers is painful and traumatizing.

But so is being subjected to physical violence, particularly in public. Chris Rock, who had been bullied his entire life, decided to bully a black woman and her spouse acted violently after he realized she was hurt. Violence creating violence through an endless loop that goes back generations. Will’s response – and possibly Chris’s as well – was an emotional one. Even though we cannot truly separate cognition from emotion, our intense emotional states can cloud our judgment and make us react impulsively – and often violently.

They lacked self-regulation. Chris could have resisted the idea of making fun of someone’s appearance. It’s never a good idea to make fun of people’s appearance because it’s incredibly violent. Will could have resisted the temptation to slap Chris’s face. Resorting to physical violence is quite bad as well because it attests to our failure to use language to solve our disputes and asserts our belief that we have the right to interfere with someone else’s body.

I have absolutely no reason to believe that we’ll stop being violent someday. It’s part of our DNA. We are, after all, animals. We find new ways to be cruel to one another. We use language in such violent ways to suppress, to humiliate, to neglect others that if they feel oppressed by our words, they may react violently and physically. Look at what’s happening in Ukraine. The tragedy of our existence on the planet and the act of ultimate violence is war. Putin is a bully who’s certainly been brought up in violent ways. What his administration is doing to many generations of Ukrainians – who are being slaughtered – and some Russians – who live in fear of retaliation for speaking up against the government – is tragic and terrifying. Bullies live under the impression that they have the right to do whatever they want to the bodies of other people without authorization. This sense of entitlement varies greatly in degree but the principle is the same.

Will Smith responded in what many may consider an act of self-defense and protection of his loved ones, perhaps emulating his childhood when he couldn’t do anything to stop his own father from physically hurting his mother. Chris Rock may have replicated the self-deprecating formula that is so intrinsically part of his life for being ignored, neglected, and bullied for many years combined with his low self-esteem and lack of empathy. But instead of aiming his violent humor at himself, he made another victim. The irony of it all is truly thought-provoking. I do hope that we can always learn and discuss why we perpetuate these violent cycles.

On the other hand, I do have reasons to believe in nonviolent communication (NVC). As someone who’s studied psychology of education, neuroscience, and languages, I think we can do better. I can see the conflict between freedom of speech and violence. I don’t think it’s a good idea to mess with people’s ability to say what they want – except in cases where the annihilation of certain groups of dis/misinformation is propagated. But I believe that caring and nurturing homes and relationships, holistic educational experiences, and language – particularly bi/multilingual contexts – can help make the world less violent.

Do you know what makes us truly powerful? Knowing that you can be cruel and hurt someone but having the capacity to choose not to. Our special powers are intrinsically connected to our ability to self-regulate and decide not to make fun of or punch someone else. If you’re a parent or a teacher, remember that although frustration is part of life, having your children’s back when they need you is essential. May this shocking experience at the Oscars help us reflect on how violent we’re being to one another – physically and verbally.

Perhaps this discussion can serve as a cautionary tale. We all have the potential for violence within ourselves. What sometimes begins as an itch might one day sneak up on us and unleash what millions of years of evolutionary history have embedded in our genes. If we’re not too careful, we might begin to think we have the right to cause enormous amounts of pain in whole communities, not just our loved ones. And our actions can become examples the new generations draw from to justify their own violent acts. Let’s try to do better.

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