Magazine | October 28, 2019, Issue

Defiant Dave Chappelle

Dave Chappelle in Toronto, Canada, September 9, 2018 (Mario Anzuoni/Reuters)
In the face of critics bent on suppression, he tells it as he sees it

When Dave Chappelle’s Netflix special Sticks & Stones came out in August, the overwhelming response from critics was that it was offensive, unacceptable garbage.

Inkoo Kang of Slate declared that Chappelle’s “jokes make you wince.” Garrett Martin, in the online magazine Paste, maintained that the special was “thoughtless” and “terrible” — and that Chappelle was just “acting like an a**hole” and proving that he was “thoroughly out of touch with today.” In The Atlantic, Hannah Giorgis called it a “temper tantrum.” Melanie McFarland’s piece in Salon disparaged it for its “cruelty.”

The “professionals” agreed — the special was trash, worthy of only a pathetic 33 percent critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes.

The low score really shouldn’t be surprising. After all, Chappelle was making jokes about untouchable subjects — such as race, the LGBT community, and school shootings. He literally said he didn’t believe Michael Jackson’s accusers, and hinted that it wouldn’t matter even if they were right, because, and I quote, “it’s Michael Jackson!” In a climate where the phrase “you guys” has been deemed problematic, there is no way a comedian could actually expect to get away with things like that.

Or could he?

See, while the critics’ response might make you think that the people who watched it were so traumatized that they haven’t come out from under their beds since, the Rotten Tomatoes audience score tells a different story: People liked it. They liked it a lot. In fact, the audience score was a whopping 99 percent.

How can this be? Is this some kind of crazy outlier? Although the super-woke critics, who no doubt fancy themselves to be the experts on art and culture, would have you think that it is, all actual evidence points to the fact that it’s not. In reality, the Problematic Police don’t represent the views of most of the country — no matter how much their shrill-shrieking tweets and buzzword-salad blog posts might be drowning out the more tempered views of Regular People.

The truth is, out in the Real World, humor that isn’t afraid to push boundaries has always been popular. South Park (a show that has joked about subjects ranging from Mohammed to the Virgin Mary to Caitlyn Jenner to the death of Trayvon Martin) was just renewed through a 26th season. At the end of September, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia will begin its 14th season, even though the last one featured comedic episodes on topics that the Woke Warriors would certainly say you may not joke about, such as the transgender-bathroom debate and Me Too.

There’s empirical evidence suggesting that the people who support extreme levels of political correctness are the ones who are, as Martin put it in his review of Chappelle’s special, “out of touch with today” — not the other way around. A study released last year by the international research initiative More in Common, titled “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape,” found that 80 percent of the population believes “political correctness is a problem in our country,” including 61 percent of traditional liberals. Like a beautiful but mean high-school bully after losing the Student Council election, the PC Police have learned they are not as popular as they thought they were.

How, then, did they get so powerful? It’s simple: Cultural censorship through fear. The social-justice crowd has become the dominant voice on cultural affairs not because their views are actually the most popular, but because they are so good at silencing the others.

For many Americans, the prospect of being called “racist,” “sexist,” “homophobic,” or otherwise “problematic” has become more terrifying than death itself. People are afraid of being “canceled”; the Thought Police know that. They don’t have to worry about finding silly things such as “logic” or “facts” to prop up their positions — they have a much easier route: your fear.

They’re very, very good at it, too. They’ve somehow made it accepted that if you are, for example, a man, you may not comment on any accusation of sexism — even if, say, someone makes the claim that the word “too” is “sexist” and hurts women. (This actually happened a few years ago; the Huffington Post published a 1,200-word piece on it.) Similarly, if you are white, you can’t comment on any accusation of racism — even if, say, someone makes the claim that Lord of the Rings will have “dire consequences . . . for society” because the way it depicts the orcs will perpetuate racism. (This, too, actually happened; a sci-fi writer made that exact claim on the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast last year.) Effectively, you are automatically silenced on a whole host of issues just because of your identity — logic be damned.

Is this any way for us to live? Why is the majority staying silent for fear of a tiny subgroup whose only weapon is a handful of hack words?

I understand the fear. I understand why a person might be afraid to speak freely, knowing that a spurious accusation of racism or sexism could easily result. I also understand why the easiest response to this sort of accusation would be to simply shut up or maybe apologize, regardless of whether you actually have anything to be sorry for. The PC mob rarely stops at calling someone “offensive.” No — it also wants anyone associated with anything it deems offensive to be cast out of the public square. It wants “offensive” people to be forbidden to speak on college campuses and even to be employed.

It’s time for us to stop being afraid.

Yes, racism and sexism are very real, very serious issues. But the truth is, a culture that accepts an obsession with baselessly, randomly declaring “racism” and “sexism” where they don’t exist just minimizes the real instances of it. For example: I’ve experienced sexism countless times in my life. In fact, it’s pretty much impossible for me to look at my Twitter mentions without seeing someone telling me that I should stop my life and have kids immediately, or even that having kids is all that I’m good for because I am a woman. There are still people out there who do not see women as equal to men, and we should be talking about that and fighting for it to change. Unfortunately, however, the true examples of sexism can get lost when you have social-justice warriors screeching about how, say, the word “manhole” needs to be scrubbed out of city codes (as the city of Berkeley, Calif., announced it would do in July). Although the activists behind those sorts of movements might believe they’re helping women, the reality is that many people are going to hear that and think, “Gee, if that’s all women have to complain about, this sexism thing must not be as bad as people say it is.” The glaring irony is that the influence of social-justice militancy ends up actually hurting the very groups it purports to want to help.

Worse, that impact is only one of many negatives of cultural censorship. An obvious one is that it makes it difficult for us to have real, open conversations — which is the only way for us ever to truly understand each other and come up with the best solutions to our problems. Of course, we might not always agree — and there are always going to be people who actually think that, say, white women wearing hoop earrings amounts to “cultural appropriation” (as a residence assistant at Pitzer College declared in a campus-wide email a couple of years ago), but evidence suggests that these people are not as common as they are loud. (Yes: I have enough faith in humanity to claim that most people do not believe that any culture owns a shape, be it in earring form or otherwise.) We need to stop allowing incompetent bullies to set the standard for what’s “acceptable.” We reasonable, well-adjusted folks are the silent majority — so it’s about damn time we stopped being so silent.

The PC obsession is also detrimental to comedy in particular. The problem with declaring certain tough or complicated subjects to be “taboo” or “off-limits” is that comedy is the only mechanism that’s capable of creating laughter or joy out of tough or complicated situations. I know this from experience: Comedy can heal like nothing else. For example, some people might say that jokes about death are “inappropriate” or “not okay,” but those sorts of jokes actually have helped me cope with my mother’s untimely, sudden death (which happened a little less than five years ago) more than anything else has. I even have a joke in my standup routine that mentions both her death and the death of a pet dog. I remember being terrified the first time I told it, because I was afraid I was “making light” of something that could be “triggering,” something that was too “dark” to joke about. I told it anyway, and have continued to do so, and I’m glad I have — because not only has it gotten laughs, but people who’ve heard it have told me that they’ve been through something similar and they related to what I had to say.

Of course, not all “offensive” jokes have this sort of impact; some won’t do anything but make you cringe. And sure, I can even admit that some of the jokes in Chappelle’s special were more cringe-worthy than laugh-worthy. The thing is, though, that the only way for comedians to know if a joke is going to work or fail is by trying it — and we have to be careful to protect their license to try. If you think about it, calling for the “cancellation” of a comedian is quite like demanding that a baseball player be fired because he struck out. Making comedians too afraid to tell a joke, any joke, could result in our missing out on some great humor. And for what? For the sake of not having to risk feeling uncomfortable for the brief time in our lives that we might choose to be at a comedy club, or watching a standup special on Netflix? I don’t think anyone with even a moderate level of emotional competence would call that a fair trade.

Chappelle intended his special to be a protest against cancel culture and oversensitivity. As a comedian, he’s sick of it — and, as the audience response revealed, they — we! — are too. Chappelle did his job; now it’s time for us to do ours. It’s time to stop pretending we’re offended when we’re not, and it’s time to speak up against the loud, self-righteous, whiny few. Speech doesn’t belong only to them.

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