Monday, April 04, 2022



Will Smith: Rage or Righteous Indignation?

Steve A Johnson, PhD




We have all probably heard multiple times about --The Big Slap—Will Smith “smacked” Chris Rock at the Academy Awards ceremony. Many of us are trying to make sense out of it and are asking questions, such as…

· Was it for real?

· Why?

· Is this an example of poor modelling for children and others who look up to Will Smith as a role model?

· Was Will’s response a warranted and appropriate form of support for his wife in the face of an insensitive and inappropriate joke about her?

· Is it just another example of toxic masculinity in which wives are viewed and treated as property?

· Is it evidence of a possible mental health problem exhibited by Will Smith, something such as poor impulse control, emotional dysregulation, misattribution of threat, or something else?

· Is it appropriate and proportional righteous indignation?

As a psychotherapist who practices Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), I wondered whether this model can help answer some of these questions about the meaning of the event. Let me try.

REBT does distinguish unhealthy anger/rage from healthy anger, sometimes called righteous indignation. Does this distinction help us assess the appropriateness or inappropriateness of Will Smith’s behavior? Both unhealthy anger/rage and healthy anger/righteous indignation begin with an individual attributing a specific meaning to a situation or event, and that meaning is that someone or something violated a value or principle important to the individual. Apparently, Will Smith believed that the joke by Chris Rock violated Will’s principle of fairness, appropriateness, compassion, etc.

However, what distinguishes unhealthy anger/rage and righteous indignation are the beliefs added to the meaning given to the event, i.e., Chris Rock’s joke. The beliefs that contribute to unhealthy anger/rage are as follows (not all need to be held for an individual to exhibit unhealthy anger):

1. My important value/principle must not or should not have been violated.

2. It is utterly horrible or awful that it was violated.

3. I can’t stand that it was violated.

4. The one who violated it is no good, evil, totally unjust, irredeemable, unforgiveable, etc.

The beliefs that contribute to healthy anger/righteous indignation are as follows:

1. I wish that individual had not violated my value or principle.

2. I don’t like that it was violated and wish that it hadn’t happened, but it is not utterly horrible.

3. I don’t like what was done, but I can stand it.

4. The person who violated it did something wrong, perhaps very wrong, but the individual is not irredeemable, unforgiveable, evil, etc.

Also, the behaviors associated with unhealthy anger/rage and righteous indignation are quite different. They are:

1. Behavior associated with unhealthy anger: Attacking or other aggressive behaviors

2. Behavior associated with righteous indignation: Assertive statement that the action was inappropriate and unwarranted, statement of desire that the individual refrains from such behavior in the future, statement that an apology is due, etc.

The bottom line is that the behavior associated with unhealthy anger/rage is aggressive, condemnatory, and tends to break relationships. The behavior associated with righteous indignation is assertive, unapproving of the action, but does not break off relationship.

Did Will Smith exhibit unhealthy anger/rage? It certainly looks like it. But then another question arises, namely, should he be condemned? While his behavior does warrant being declared as inappropriate, unacceptably aggressive, and may warrant appropriate consequences, condemning him might just perpetuate the relational break and not lead to Will getting help for his unhelpful anger, poor impulse control, poor frustration tolerance, and aggressive behavior.

What about those of us who witnessed THE BIG SLAP? The responses seem pretty typical for where America is now about the ethics of violence. We are divided into at least two tribes: One tribe applauds Will and the other tribe condemns him. REBT would not support the responses of either tribe. The ideal is that we are one tribe of individuals connected to each other in ways that protect and support each other for the common good. To maintain those healthy connections, we need to help each other when one among us acts inappropriately, have consequences for that individual, but also have a mechanism to forgive and help those who act inappropriately so they can, in the future, change their ways for the better and contribute to the common good. Instead of having winners and losers, we can begin by holding appropriate beliefs about such a situation so we maximize the possibility that there is a win-win.

As I was thinking through this event in light of REBT, I wondered whether the Bible supports REBT’s distinction between unhealthy anger/rage vs. healthy anger/righteous indignation. Here are some biblical verses I found that, while they don’t use the same terminology seen in REBT, they definitely point to two different realities with respect to types of anger. Take a look at this ancient wisdom which is confirmed by modern science as seen in the REBT model.

· John 16: 33: I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world. · 

· Ephesians 4:26: In your anger do not sin: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry

· Psalm 37:8: Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret—it leads only to evil.

· James 1:19-20: My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.

· Ephesians 4:32: Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you

· Matthew 5:43-44: You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,

· Matthew 18:21-22: Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times? Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times

· Ephesians 4:31: Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice

· Proverbs 29:11: A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense

· Ecclesiastes 7:9: Do not be quickly provoked in your spirit, for anger resides in the lap of fools

· Colossians 3:8: But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.

It matters what we think because the way we think greatly impacts our behavior and this behavior impacts how we live in community—whether we live in harmony or chaos.

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