Chapelle– what we need is context and charity

So, I finally decided I’d watch Chapelle for myself tonight and make up my own mind on things (and take a break from my one-a-day Ted Lasso binge).  I’m so glad I did.  Mostly, because I was entertained as hell.  I’ve always said that something that actually makes you laugh out loud when you are alone is really funny.   And I did… a bunch.  I’ve honestly never had much more than a vague awareness that Chapelle was a super-popular comedian and I almost never watch stand-up comedy, so I was not expecting all that much.  But, I mostly loved it.  As Yglesias points out, Chapelle is, in large part, an equal-opportunity offender and he had pretty offensive things to say about women, white people, black people, poor people, Jewish people, Asian people.  But, and this is actually his point– somehow only the trans stuff draws this crazy, disproportionate flack.  Honestly, a lot of time I was laughing of the “omg I cannot believe he actually said that!” type of laughter.  Some people just choose to focus on the offense, but, the offense is telling us something about ourselves and our society.  It is eminently clear that Chapelle is not trying to be malicious.  But, sometimes, I forget, for the cancel crowd, “intent doesn’t matter!” (Just tell that to our legal system)  

Hence, the title of my post.  In full context, Chapelle is actually deeply humane and really wants us to all just relate to others as people all sharing in the human condition.  I came away quite convinced he has no animus at all towards trans people.  He does, however, have great animus towards trans activists who want to take cancel people and take their livelihoods away for saying anything they consider transphobic.  From my perspective, if you choose to ignore the full context and choose to be uncharitable, Chapelle says awful things about a lot of people, including trans people.  But if all you choose to hear is him is intentionally mis-gendering a transwoman in a joke without the full context or voicing support for TERF’s, you are missing the point– and for many of the Chapelle wannabe cancelers, intentionally so.  

Anyway, in one my rare substantial disagreements with Drum, he didn’t find the special funny at all.  But, we are, as usual, very much in agreement on some key take-aways from the whole controversy:

But now Netflix is in trouble with the trans community, which is hardly a surprise. In the same way that all labor unions are aggressive but police unions are really aggressive, the trans community is probably the most ruthless identity group out there. You really don’t want to mess with them if you have a choice.

I’ve always wondered how well this works for them. On the one hand, a reputation for combativeness is an obvious asset. On the other hand, it can also put off people who would otherwise be allies. For example, I’ve never been comfortable with the ease with which they insist that even light criticism means you’re teaming up with people who want to murder them. Likewise, in the workplace they’ve mastered the art of claiming to “feel unsafe” because that’s a code phrase that gets HR involved and can cause real trouble for people. Emily VanDerWerff pulled this crap on Matt Yglesias a while back and I haven’t read a word she’s written since. It was a vile and baseless attack.

Beyond that, there’s the trans community’s problematic relationship with scientific and medical evidence about transitioning, especially among children and teens. Their attacks on working scientists who happen to produce inconvenient results are legendary…

Looping back to Chappelle… he’s a wildly famous and popular comedian, and my take is that he crossed no boundaries that make him unfit for public consumption. Netflix was right to air his show because that’s the business they’re in. The critics are wrong to launch a nuclear war against Netflix over this.

Meanwhile, Yglesias gets really into the practical political implications of all this.  Not quite on my earlier points, but I’m not doing two posts on this.  It’s a free post so you can also read the whole thing, if you choose:

All things considered, it’s a useful case study in the value of checking things out for yourself rather than just reading takes. I don’t know that a person outraged about Chappelle’s jokes about trans people would feel better about them knowing that the special also oozes contempt for working-class white people and tars all police officers as trigger-happy racists, but it does create a somewhat different context. Most of this stuff, to be clear, is also kinda funny. There’s a really witless and homophobic joke about Mike Pence being gay that’s the kind of thing I like to think I outgrew in eleventh grade but that made me chuckle — Chappelle is a very good performer. But again, the fact that one of the most straightforwardly homophobic things in the special is just using “Mike Pence is gay” as a diss on Mike Pence is a sign that this is something other than right-wing politics.

Similarly, I actually think the toughest political hit in the whole special is two brief jokes about “space Jews” that haven’t gotten much attention outside of the Jewish press. The joke is basically that Israel is equivalent to a freed slave who turns around and enslaves other people (to make Zionists everywhere mad), but he then also attributes this to “Jews” (to make Israel-critical Jewish people mad). This is one that I, personally, was kind of upset about. Though, again, to be clear — I laughed at the joke. Chappelle is good at his job…

Well, obviously a lot of people — especially transgender people — do care, and they want this routine labeled harmful and taken down off Netflix. And to be clear, I am not asking anyone to enjoy him or praise him or watch his specials. These people at the Economist hailing him as a great hero for daring to piss off trans activists are being ridiculous.

But I’ll say roughly the same thing I said in “Joe Rogan and the Doomed Politics of Shunning” — I don’t think trying to arm-twist people into shunning everyone who expresses a widely-held viewpoint that trans activists disagree with is going to accomplish anything useful. Unlike a standup routine, this is political action, and it deserves to be judged based on whether or not it makes sense as political action. And the answer is that it does not; it serves to narrow the progressive coalition and make everything — including tangible progress on trans rights — harder…

My point here is that there are probably a lot of Dave Chappelles out there voting for Democratic Party candidates, and you need to think about the implications of that before you decide something is worth throwing people out of the coalition…

Indeed, I think it’s noteworthy that the one time Chappelle actually addresses a specific piece of trans-related legislation — the North Carolina bathroom bill — he says it’s bad and takes the pro-trans view. He also says a bunch of other stuff that is genuinely hurtful and against activist preferences. But on the concrete policy topic, he says the bill is bad.

Trans rights are a mixed bag in public opinion

Just because an idea is unpopular doesn’t mean that it’s wrong, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with people fighting for unpopular causes.

But I do think that in politics you need to know the difference between when you’re fighting for an unpopular cause and when you’re trying to spike the football with a popular one. The progressive internet often makes it seem as if trans activist claims are commonly held views being resisted by only a small number of extreme conservatives.

In truth, it’s very much a mixed bag…

Politics requires some chill

If you want to consider “The Closer” a wise political text, you need to incorporate the shots at cops, at women, at Israel, at low-income white people, at #MeToo, and a million other things.

Here from another Chappelle special is a bit about how Ohio is full of poor white people and all poor white people love heroin…

You can enjoy these jokes as jokes or you can not enjoy them. But that’s what they are — edgy jokes, not a serious analysis of social problems (at the time this special came out, the NIH was reporting a 45% increase in opioid overdose deaths among Black people in Ohio).

But what you don’t want to do, as a political movement, is run around looking for reasons to exile people from your political coalition. A non-trivial number of rank-and-file Democrats have a range of views on LGBT issues that put them at odds with the bulk of progressives. It is very important that those people keep voting for Democrats, or else Donald Trump is president again and progress on things like military service becomes impossible. If you put out the message that some of these statements are such profound line crossing (unlike jokes about Space Jews or heroin-addled poor white people) that they are worth yanking episodes from the Netflix library, that is what you are saying.

On some level, every activist wants to say that their pet issue is the most important issue in the world. But depending on what you’re talking about, having more people see it that way can be counterproductive. If you seriously tell every Black person with conservative views on gender roles to take a hike, you’re going to lose.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

6 Responses to Chapelle– what we need is context and charity

  1. LiziRose says:

    Without context everything gets so blown out of proportion it makes my head ache. Insightful post, as always.

  2. Nicole K. says:

    Not all transgender people want this routine labeled harmful and taken down off Netflix. It’s the transgender activists who are making demands, and they don’t speak for all transgender people. I am a trans woman, and I don’t have any problems with the special. I don’t think having my feelings hurt is an hr issue or a form of violence. I think it’s a mistake to assume that the people who shout loudest are representative of the entire transgender population.

  3. I did exactly the same thing – watched The Closer and blogged about it. Yup, Dave got into everyone, and your blog reminded me that I considered asking the question, “How come all the white women with saggy tits and dirty feet aren’t protesting?”

    Or maybe they are, I just haven’t noticed because I don’t watch FoxNews.

  4. Ridge says:

    Agreed on all fronts. I did some research on his trans comedian friend; she was a real person and the story of her suicide is very sad. Honestly I thought his ending message—that just like everyone else, trans people are people having a human experience—was a really good one. I wish that was the core tenet of progressive thought on minority groups in general: at the end of the day we are all human, we all struggle, we all deserve empathy and respect, and fundamentally there’s a lot more that unites us than divides us.

    All that said, a (small) tragedy that I think has come from the whole Chappelle thing is that people largely unfamiliar with his previous work are judging him based off The Closer. I’ve seen literally every stand-up special he has and every episode of his show, and I think by far The Closer is his least funny. He really thrived during the Bush era and not all of his comedy translates to today, but for the time it was brilliant and the best around. His other new stuff is meh, but Killing Them Softly and For What It’s Worth is hilarious in my opinion. Not to mention there are a number of his skits I still rewatch because they’re just genius.

    • Steve Greene says:

      Tell me what to watch that I can find easily.

      • Ridge says:

        I think the “Black Bush” skit I linked is still really really funny… “Clayton Bigsby: Black White Supremacist” is his most classic skit if you haven’t seen it. “Trading Spouses” is also kinda funny, and “Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories: Rick James” is entertaining/funny (it’s where the “I’m Rick James, bitch!” quote comes from). All of these individual skits are on YouTube, but his entire show where the skits come from are available on both Netflix and HBO Max. If you get bored I think it’s worth watching it (if I recall the Clayton Bigsby skit is from the first episode).

        Killin’ Them Softly and For What It’s Worth (stand up specials) are both available on Youtube as well as HBO Max. There’s multiple funny little clips from these on YouTube, but the “Sesame Street” and “Celebrities” one I linked should give you a good taste of both. Here’s another clip that’s kinda funny:

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