Destroyed Discourse


One of the common refrains in this past week’s online discussions of the violent incident at the Oscars was just how much attention was being paid to the interactions between Chris Rock and Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith on the one hand, and how little attention was being paid to other issues that many people believe to be far more important. From global climate change to the COVID-19 pandemic to the humanitarian crisis in the Ukraine, every other news story that felt like it would have occupied those slots occupied by Oscars stuff was trumpeted as something far more worthy of our attention. After setting the Yahoo! homepage up for my students on Friday morning, and seeing that three of the six stories at the top of the page were related to Will Smith and Chris Rock — nothing on COVID-19, nothing on the Ukraine — it was difficult to avoid thinking about all those arguments about more substantive things going on in the world that should have been receiving more coverage from the news.

On the one hand, what happened at the Oscars clearly transcends the tableau of “celebrity news” because it highlighted so many issues that were already being discussed — the appropriateness of certain kinds of comedy, the blatant double standards in our culture (and justice system) when it comes to facing consequences for unacceptable actions — that I believe the story, as it continues to unfold, deserves more attention than may be apparent at first blush. At the same time, though, given the direness of the pandemic and the loss of life in the Ukraine, there’s a strong argument to be made that these crises are so catastrophic that they qualitatively deserve to drown out the pool of public attention for all things considered “news,” rightly or wrongly.

Having said that, all these appeals to consider these more consequential matters didn’t land on me as hard as they could have, mainly because they all took the form of memes, largely in the format of “What shocked me the most about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars was [insert world issue totally unrelated to what happened at the Oscars here].” It’s not that this kind of sarcasm doesn’t have its place in discourse — I was a teen in the nineties, and I still indulge in a fair bit of it myself — but when the primary goal of your rhetoric is to encourage people to take a matter more seriously, then sarcasm seems, at its root, counterintuitive to that purpose. Maybe the people who created these memes were more interested in getting likes and shares than actually contributing to the discourse, which is fair, but it also means that they were coopting these serious situations for purposes as vain and venal as any “celebrity news” story could ever be.

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