Years ago, I did a ten-day silent retreat. Since then, I haven’t stopped talking about it.
Silence is incredible, it’s calming, and it’s healing. Of course, knowing that silence is good is one thing, and being silent is quite another. When things get chaotic, I close my eyes and focus on my breathing. Sometimes that works, and I can put myself back into the hall I sat in for hours each day, surrounded by quiet. Other times I get caught up in the noise, and I join in, like a seagull screeching uselessly into the wind because all the other seagulls are screeching.
On Sunday night at the Oscars, Will Smith slapped Chris Rock; the noise reached fever pitch. The screeching, more commonly known as the discourse, was louder than I’ve ever heard.
And I did hear it. How could any of us not hear it? I live online for large parts of each day, where the noise is. Despite living in a world literally at war, our heads were turned, facing multiple climate crises and a lingering, still-deadly, pandemic. However rushed and ill-advised, it seemed like everyone had something to say, with reactions running the gamut from melodramatic to glib.
I am not judging anyone but have to laugh: women friends who condemn Will Smith applaud Sylvia Miles dumping spaghetti on John Simon's head years ago. one says: "he needed to have more than a single bowl dumped on him. Disgusting creature, so mean. Physically ugly himself..."— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) March 28, 2022
I didn’t have anything to say, so I stayed silent. I still don’t have anything to say, even though one of my jobs is stand-up comedy and another of my jobs is opinion writing. Instead, I’m willing myself back into that chilly hall where I sat amongst others, strangers with all sorts of lives and histories, and collectively we chose silence. I’ve decided to shut up for a minute; please clap!
Here’s the thing: I completely understand that everyone is entitled to their opinion and expression of that opinion.
Seriously, have at it! Freedom of expression is vital to me. For all its ghoulish flaws, social media still allows people who have been historically excluded from other media to express themselves, which is valuable to us all.
Comedy has become fertile ground for the debate over who can say what. In fact, comedy occupies an outsized spot in that debate, which I find dispiriting because comedy is generally not an intellectually exciting space. Comedy is still primarily dominated by the same voices and politics that run the world.
Still, you will not catch me telling my comedy colleagues not to say something I don’t like. They can say what they want, and clearly, they do. If I think it’s necessary and if I have the energy, you will catch me expressing, as loudly as I can manage, that what they said is bigoted or dangerous.
As for ‘The Slap’ that I’m not going to weigh in on, the noise around it continues to reverberate and echo around the internet almost a week after it happened.
He was wrong but I understand the sentiment. pic.twitter.com/aURe1pyubg— O.J. Simpson (@TheRealOJ32) March 29, 2022
The list of people with something to say grows by the hour and, while I’m not deliberately paying attention, I am soaking it up by osmosis simply by existing in the world today.
Everybody had a take. I somehow know OJ Simpson’s thoughts on the incident. Joyce Carol Oates chose to tweet through it. And, through a spokesperson, British prime minister Boris Johnson let the world know his take. The discourse is ridiculous and loud and saps me of all energy.
The culture writer Ryan Broderick was immersed in the noise, too, writing this week in his newsletter,: “So, when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock for insulting Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia, it acted as a sort of take big bang.
"Ben Shapiro blamed it on leftism, Judd Apatow got ratioed for saying Chris Rock could have been killed (lol), and a whole bunch of Democrats tweeted and then deleted support for the slap,” he wrote.
The strange part was that right when the incident happened, we all dreaded that ‘take big bang’ that would inevitably happen next. Broderick named this phenomenon “viral pre-exhaustion”:
"But I don’t actually find all the absolutely garbage takes that interesting — even as something to hate read. Instead, what I find more interesting is the viral pre-exhaustion that users described feeling immediately after the slap.
"Viral Pre-Exhaustion": The immediate feeling of fatigue you get when something happens that you know will generate days of totally unhinged online discourse.https://t.co/GmVdlQ5o00 pic.twitter.com/6x0LLA4Rf5— Ryan Broderick (@broderick) March 28, 2022
"The dread and anticipatory boredom at the idea that this will dominate the national conversation for at least the next three days, the next week if Smith or Rock comment on it further, or the next month if some kind of governing body — either America’s or Hollywood’s — gets involved.”
So this is where we find ourselves, in this most stupid of circumstances, with everything else going on, near and far. The discourse becomes deafening, the seagulls keep circling, and they will not stop screeching. There’s not a whole lot I can do about it, I suppose, except to be quiet myself.