Why did Will Smith assault Chris Rock at the Oscars ceremony? Getting inside the mind of a wrongdoer— and let’s not fool ourselves, Smith’s action is liable to prosecution— is always a dangerously speculative enterprise. But given what we know about Smith’s lifestyle, we could at least try to provide some answers.
As it happens, Smith and his wife Jada claim to have a non-monogamous “open marriage” (i.e., they allow each other to have other sexual partners). Their daughter Willow openly admits being polyamorous.
This sort of behavior has a long history as a countercultural stance. Utopian movements have long called for an end to private property, and what better way of moving forward in that direction, than renouncing the exclusivity of your sexual partner? In this rosy world, we all cooperate and grow together as a community. You scratch my back, I scratch yours. We share meals, we raise children together, and why not, I sleep with your wife, and you sleep with mine.
A married couple, Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha, even wrote a famous book, Sex at Dawn, claiming that human beings are naturally polyamorous, and monogamy is a toxic cultural imposition that breeds all sorts of problems in modern life.
Well, not quite. “Open marriages” are not the kumbaya lifestyle many hippies imagine. Ryan and Jetha’s book is very problematic, for many reasons. The biggest issue with their thesis is that evolutionarily, such promiscuity does not make sense. Admittedly, some species do behave promiscuously. But in human beings, infants need special care, and men have to make a huge investment for children to survive. That investment only pays off if they have some guarantee that the child they are looking after, truly carries their genes. How, then, can they ensure that they are looking after their own children? Jealousy does the part. Jealousy is a mechanism to prevent women from having intercourse with other men, and thus reduce the risk of raising children that are not your own.
While sexual jealousy exists in women, psychologists have long known that it is not as intense as in men. It makes evolutionary sense: women have certainty that the child they are looking after carries their genes. Men do not have that certainty. While Hera in Greek mythology is prominent for her anger outbursts, at the end of the day she (grudgingly) accepts Zeus’ escapades. Othello, in contrast, goes on a murderous rage and brings about his own destruction.
Will Smith is not Othello. But we may very well wonder if Smith is really prepared to live the lifestyle he seems to be so fond of. Jealousy is a deep-seated emotion that operates mostly on an unconscious level. Smith may think of himself as an avant-garde artist, completely liberated from the claws of oppressive monogamous patriarchy. But just as he was at first smiling when Rock made the alopecia joke— and then unexpectedly unleashed his anger— men who are consumed by destructive passions are frequently in denial.
The assault on Rock may have been what Freud called a “neurotic defense mechanism”. One such mechanism is displacement: this happens when a person who is facing a difficult situation unleashes his or her anger against someone that has nothing to do with his or her plight.
If anything, we should feel compassion and empathy for Smith. It must not be easy to know that your wife openly sleeps with your friends. Millions of years of evolution have programmed your mind to feel intense jealousy in such situations. Understandably, you may become very aggressive towards other men, and Rock happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But at the same time, this is a wake-up call to reexamine our societal values. Today, the nuclear family is consistently under ideological attack. And to be sure, living in monogamy and exercising a measure of control on your spouse and children has many shortcomings. Yet, monogamy is at the root of our human nature.
Of course, we are not prisoners of our nature, and we can always try to change. But Will Smith’s lamentable behavior seems to prove that jealousy will come back to bite, and the sooner we acknowledge this fact, the better prepared we will be to deal with the complexities of modern life.