Controversial Comedy, Sensitive Snowflakes, and Misplaced Anger
Dave Chapelle’s latest comedy special has been making the rounds on the internet, stirring up controversy and rehashing old debates about free speech.
Reactions to the Closer generally fall into three camps:
- The Uninterested: Chapelle is not funny and is just another middle age comedian playing the PC Card to cover for his lack of new jokes.
- The Defenders: Chapelle is hilarious, the GOAT, and people are just overreacting snowflakes. Can’t you tell a joke nowadays? What happened to free speech?
- The Offended: This is offensive, dangerous, and harmful to the trans community. It leads to real world violence and increased hate towards an already marginalized group.
The cycle of how these groups interact is familiar to anyone aware of previous controversial speech incidents.
The Offended display outrage, anger, and hurt which causes The Defenders to claim that The Offended are just being too sensitive and don’t understand comedy. The Defenders say Chapelle doesn’t have malicious intent; he’s just pushing back at limits on speech, people who can’t take a joke, and attacking a group that he feels has more power than the Black community. Besides, saying controversial things is part of his job.
At the center is whether The Offended (many of whom are part of the trans community) are being too sensitive. Or is it Chapelle and other speakers who are wrong? Maybe they don’t see how their speech fuels hate and real world harm through the perpetuation of dangerous stereotypes?
This framing misses a key issue entirely: ultimately the reason why trans people and other marginalized communities feel hurt by controversial speech and its promulgators in the first place is because of racists and bigots who deny the humanity of others and use their beliefs as justification for acts of violence.
Rather than deriding the members of a marginalized community as snowflakes, we should be empathetic to the real world danger they face. We should reserve outrage for the racists, bigots, and transphobes whose prejudice creates a culture permissive of violence and the denial of equality for trans people. Remember the bathroom bills and the ridiculous motivations behind them like protecting against sexual predators? Legislation like that is likely to only increase.
It is these people that make this type of comedy and controversial speech potentially dangerous.
How is it surprising that trans people are concerned at jokes centered about harmful stereotypes when rates of suicide and violent attacks are much higher for members of their community compared to the general population? And that is to say nothing of the rates of homelessness and other problems that occur at higher rates as well.
If people were more accepting of each other, the trans community and other marginalized groups would not feel hurt and fear at the jokes being made because the jokes would not be indicative of a larger culture of unacceptance and violence. The jokes wouldn’t signal a pernicious underlying belief that questions their humanity. There is a reason comedians never want to “punch down”.
The fact that trans people are sensitive to jokes about them “looking like men” or similar tropes is rooted in this fact that they face a much higher risk of death and danger precisely because of certain people who believe these dehumanizing stereotypes and use them as justification for their actions.
It is not about sensitivity or disagreement about what is funny or insightful, but about how controversial speech may be unintentionally advocating this violence. Certain horrible people will take the language and position of power from which it is spoken as validation of their beliefs (remember in the Closer when a guy clapped approval for the bathroom bill?). It is akin to how Trump’s “valid people on all sides” commentary after the Charlottesville attacks in 2017 (and in many other speeches) felt validating to white supremacists.
We as a society need to stop debating whether people are too sensitive and instead be more empathetic. We should seek to understand why certain communities and groups feel defensive to specific types of speech. Then we need to redirect our outrage to those who choose to deny people humanity, equality, and acceptance. Only then will we really live in a world where everyone can freely make fun of everyone.