I expected some strong reactions, and I got them.
Yes, I wrote this in response to what happened at the Oscars. No, I wasn’t judging Will Smith. I'm a fan of his-- I quoted him in Think Again and feature his sage advice in a class I teach. I was critiquing a cultural narrative that surfaced in his acceptance speech when he talked about “protecting” his family and said, “Love makes you do crazy things.”
Some people said that as a white man, I should stay silent on an altercation between two Black men about one’s tasteless joke about another’s wife.
The African American community has faced complex layers of racial trauma that I will never fully understand. But I wasn’t attempting to shed light on racial dynamics; I was addressing a gender dynamic that’s pervasive in many cultures.
Precarious manhood is the notion that masculinity is tough to win but easy to lose. In cultures of honor, when your manhood is threatened, you reclaim it with retaliatory aggression: attacking the source of the threat. Psychologists find that this is how some Turkish men justify violence against women who threaten their place in the patriarchy—and how some white men in the Southern U.S. justify violence against men who insult their mothers or sisters. They say they’re protecting their families.
The protector narrative is not unique to one racial or ethnic group—it’s a common defense against threats to masculinity. And it’s how Will Smith explained why he slapped Chris Rock: he was defending Jada.
That was my aim. I believe that people of all backgrounds have the right to contribute to conversations about violence and injustice.
I’m not in the business of hot takes. I’m not a pundit or an activist—I’m a psychologist. I weigh in on cultural events when social science offers a novel and useful lens for understanding them.
It’s why I wrote after the 2018 U.S. Open that when a man argues with an umpire, it’s passion. When a woman does it, it’s a meltdown. When a Black woman does it, it’s a penalty. I thought it was important to highlight evidence on how the angry Black woman stereotype leads to discrimination—which has been further documented in recent research.
After the Oscars, I didn’t see anyone referencing precarious manhood research, which presents an illuminating body of evidence for making sense of male aggression in response to insults. I did see many people commenting that a comedian shouldn’t make fun of a medical condition—I didn’t have anything novel or useful to add.
I enjoy a spirited debate about the substance of my ideas. I was dismayed by the number of people who had no qualms with the content of my message, but objected on the grounds that I was the one delivering it.
To those who insist that we should listen to the people of color asking white people to sit this one out, are you suggesting that we ignore the many Black women and men who have encouraged the exact opposite?
To those who said it was inappropriate for me to speak on this issue: I think it’s inappropriate for anyone to tell others how to use their platforms. Making the assumption that I have nothing of value to contribute because I’m a white man perpetuates the very kind of stereotyping that we strive to dismantle. My lane is human behavior and I’m going to keep driving in it.
Restricting people from participating in discussions of social issues is an act of exclusion and a step toward segregation. A culture that denies entire groups the right to speak during significant events is a culture of silence rather than voice. Disagree with what I say, not whether I have the right to say it.