Will Smith had a split-second impulse. He was sitting a few feet away from Chris Rock at a table directly in front of a single step-up to the Oscar stage—a stair that seemed to have been designed specifically for the purpose of providing Smith with easy access to the podium to receive the award everyone expected he would get at the end of the show.
Then Rock made a crack about Smith’s wife. Smith was clearly in an extreme emotional state, on the cusp of achieving one of his life’s greatest ambitions. He was—as the shrinks now say—dysregulated. He laughed at Rock’s jibe, then must have caught sight of his wife’s unamused face. Smith instantly determined they had both been disrespected, and he was impelled to act. The elapsed time from crack to slap was nine seconds—four seconds to get to his feet and five seconds to get to Rock, pull his arm back, and commit his physical assault.
There was literally no obstacle in Smith’s path. There was no aisle he would have had to walk down, no conventional set of stairs on the side of the proscenium he would have had to get to and climb up before crossing the stage. Nothing was there that would have physically prevented him from acting on impulse. Had there been, Smith would have been restrained by circumstance.
In 1993, the Wall Street Journal published a legendary editorial called “No Guardrails,” which attempted to diagnose the disastrous long-term effects of the loosening of cultural and social restraints in America in the late 1960s. Three decades after its publication, the self-destruction of Will Smith was made possible by the literal removal of actual guardrails whose presence would have made his disastrous act of self-expression all but impossible.
Welcome to America, 2022, writ small.
We are living through an era in which split-second impulses are so easily indulged that the ordinary prudence with which people usually conduct their affairs can be bypassed entirely. Technological innovations are in part to blame. Careers can be and are undone by a single ill-considered tweet that might take 30 seconds to write and a decade to recover from. A teenager alone in his room can instantaneously access the alluring but dehumanizing pornography the consumption of which will damage his ability to form genuine emotional and sexual attachments to actual people in the long term.
Our culture now considers an act of self-expression or self-fulfillment to be the noblest and highest of human endeavors—and to some extent, the more extravagant, the more authentic. Reveal your greatest pain in exquisite and no-holds-barred detail. Dilate upon your secret trauma. Lay out your weaknesses and misbehaviors to show that we’re all human. Jada Pinkett Smith, whose honor her husband was supposedly defending, had a show on YouTube in which she discussed—with Smith!—an affair she’d had with her son’s friend.
People only do these things these days because they are incentivized to do so, and because the guardrails that once would have stopped them—censors, gatekeepers, and internalized shame—appear to be gone. But they aren’t, really. They are reinstalled immediately after someone goes too far. Will Smith has now been banned from the Oscars for a decade, just as a person who puts up a repulsive tweet loses a job.
We collectively believe these offenders deserve these harsh punishments because they should have known better. But should they have, really? The message American culture has transmitted at every level since the 1960s is that guardrails themselves are a kind of emotional prison from which we need to be liberated.
And we have been. But the liberation has proved imprisoning. Guardrails exist to prevent bad behavior. They are the opposite of a jail; they are the way you stay out of jail. When, in the past half-century, has anyone been led to believe that the suppression of an impulse is healthier and safer than acting upon it? We have been encouraged to be slaves to our impulses rather than masters of them, and we are coming undone because of it.
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