The slap that was heard around the world: when is violence acceptable?

April 8, 2022

It was the slap heard around the world, but for some it was entirely normal.

Oscars night was struck by violence this year.

When movie star Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock at this year’s Oscars, it forced the audience to consider questions that have plagued nurses as long as they’ve been around.

Is violence normal? Is it ever acceptable?

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Later that evening Smith received a standing ovation after winning the best actor category for his role in the film King Richard. It stunned people who thought such naked violence was unacceptable.

Joel Maxwell

This week NZNO project Address Violence and Aggression Against Nurses (AVAN) released some of its initial data on violence against nurses in district health boards (DHBs).

The results can be found in stories here and here. But it appears vast swathes of violence and aggression against nurses – who “suffered insults, racial slurs, fractures, bruises, concussions, attempted strangulations, and worse” – has gone unreported.

Part of this is because of an unwieldy and time-consuming reporting system in DHBs.

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But to my surprise, another part of the problem with underreporting is the fact that violence against nurses has been “normalised”. It has become, I assume, seen as just part of the job, which has to be endured.

Instant coffee is something that should be endured in the workplace – not violence.

As two AVAN members, Dana Hudson and Suzanne Rolls, who authored the opinion piece in Kaitiaki say: nurses can’t get the support they need if violence goes unreported. This means everything that happens needs to be shared with management.

If someone in the NZNO offices, like myself, who worked behind a desk was kicked, punched, shoved, or – yes –  slapped, then it would send shockwaves through the entire organisation.

When it happens in our wards and clinics, it’s just another Tuesday.

If someone in the NZNO offices, like myself, who worked behind a desk was kicked, punched, shoved, or – yes –  slapped, then it would send shockwaves through the entire organisation.

The only way that the problem will get taken seriously by management in DHBs, let alone in other health-care sectors, is when the true extent is laid bare.

Even with chronic underreporting of violence and aggression, the stats the project uncovered were still shocking.

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Information obtained from 17 of the 20 DHBs has revealed from 2017 to 2021, 17 DHBs reported 26,394 assaults (physical, sexual and verbal) on nurses, midwives and health-care assistants.

As Chris Rock discovered, facing an assault is bad enough without the expectation that it was somehow acceptable. I know for many of us his crass joke might have been awful, but violence was not the answer.

Will Smith’s violence might have been immortalised, but in the case of nurses, it should never be normalised.