Leave Dave Chappelle Alone

The above clip is from “The Closer,” Dave Chappelle’s latest comedy special on Netflix. (Interestingly, it seems to be the only YouTube clip of that joke that has not bleeped out what is now called the n-word.)

I watch almost no television, but I watched this because it had become so controversial. There are a bunch of things we no longer can say, starting with the word in the clip and continuing with sacred truths held by various groups of self-styled victims. I don’t believe in giving offense personally, but I am a little tired of it all.

The Closer’s humor is vulgar by my standards, but that is to be expected in a country where the average person hears the word “fuck” many, many times every single day. For reasons I do not understand entirely, this show has enraged the trans community, which calls people like author J.K. Rowling “TERFs,” or trans-exclusionary radical feminists. The term condemns other people and most likely makes them less willing to listen to you.

We already do a lot of censoring. This is why so many Youtube posters have protected us from hearing a Black man say the word “nigger.” (Maybe I crossed a line by writing that word, but it was used often by Chappelle in his performance and the audience laughed and laughed — so cancel me.)

In fact, the critics of the broadcast seem to have spent much more time counting its heresies than considering Chappelle’s larger theme.

Chappelle said he had been accused of “punching down” in his discussions of gay and trans people. (Punching down, of course, means attacking persons you regard as less worthy than you.)

In response, he noted that African American women believed that white women had hijacked the @MeToo movement — effectively punching down on minority women. He quoted a Black woman friend who expressed this belief in very strong language.

In fact, @MeToo was launched by a Black woman in 2006. How many African American women did we see wearing Handmaid’s Tale costumes in those ennobling victim demonstrations a few years back? Were those events broadly inclusive?

(Let’s go further. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both believed slavery was wrong, but they did not include African Americans in their efforts to form the United States. Sojourner Truth was a freed slave who agitated not just against slavery but for women’s right to vote: her most remembered quote — “Ain’t I a woman?” — indicated her frustration with the suffrage movement when she spoke in Akron in 1851. Later, in 1919, a New York newspaper ran a telling editorial cartoon of two suffragettes holding signs to promote the 19th Amendment; the white woman was sneering at the Black one. In all, that’s centuries of punching down.)

So, yes, Chappelle joked about trans people. He defended Rowling, who gave us Harry Potter and who questioned the burgeoning numbers of gender reassignments among adolescents in recent years and who also noted that many of those young people walked back their decisions. Chappelle acknowledged he was a member of “Team TERF” and that he believed that gender was a fact.

Toward the end, however, he said this: “I’m done talking about it. No more jokes about transgenders until we can all laugh together.”

He finished by sharing the story of a trans woman comedian he had come to know and whom he had given the opportunity to perform the opening act at one of his well-attended performances. He described her as “part of my community.”

She respected him as well and tweeted this before her early death: “Punching down requires you to consider yourself superior to another group. [Dave Chappelle] doesn’t consider himself better than me in any way. He isn’t punching up or punching down. He’s punching lines. That’s his job and he’s a master of his craft.”


Trans employees of Netflix and their supporters protested the release of “The Closer” outside company headquarters last week. Some outsiders showed up with signs indicating they liked jokes or supported free speech. One employee tore up one of those signs and handed the stick back to its owner; not a nice look.

Some of the employees said shows like this one will cause intolerant people to attack trans persons violently. This seems like a bit of groundwork being laid to argue that censors should have edited “The Closer” pre-emptively to protect the vulnerable — and that Netflix should preview and “fix” all future shows for the same purpose.

I don’t think it works that way. In life, we encounter people who are different from us and, initially, we make each other uncomfortable. Awkwardness ensues and is resolved over time, not infrequently by shared humor. To be able to listen and laugh at yourself is helpful in such situations.

Chappelle’s show is a set piece in how he — and we — can get to know persons who are not exactly like us and become friends with them.

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