The people vs. Dave Chappelle

Comedian Dave Chappelle just released the last comedy special tied to his contract with Netflix, aptly titled “The Closer.” Chappelle, having made a name for himself as provocateur-extraordinaire, delivered material that might have left people with a sour taste in their mouths. So, in standard fashion once again, the public is debating a cliche topic: Is it OK for comedians to make jokes about any and every thing? 

If one believes in the importance of the First Amendment, the answer is easy: Of course it should be. 

In “The Closer,” Chappelle attempted to cover a range of topics in 72 minutes, most of which seem to have the sole intention of pushing buttons. He discussed COVID-19, Asian hate crimes, Magic Johnson and something about “space Jews” all in the first 10 minutes. It’s content that was engineered to offend. 

After controversy following the 2019 release of “Sticks and Stones,” Chappelle’s show creator decided, instead of following the standard route of backing down or making an apology tour, he would double down in “The Closer.” It would take a defensive approach toward his material, being his observations about the LGBTQ+ community and transgender individuals, in particular.

Jokes made at the expense of the transgender community are not exactly ones I found tasteful or even that funny — in fact, this was my least favorite special of his — but he maintains a right to make them all the same. 

Critics compare his commentary to hate speech when, in reality, it's just speech they hate. It's a matter of sensitivity.

My sympathies go out to those who feel offended or marginalized by Chappelle’s newest set of jokes, but in the context of our democracy, the cries for cancellation are worrying. 

Some claim “hiding behind the First Amendment is childish.” Well, even a child should understand the importance of the right to free speech.

Calling for Chappelle to be deplatformed has the implications of homogenizing beliefs and ideology, the diversity of which are necessary for unregulated public discourse. For those who don't share the beliefs of the loudest in the room, the threat of removal from that dialogue is antithetical to progress.

Speaking of being the loudest in the room, the fundamental role of comedians emerges: To be able to express ideas that are possibly shared by others, in addition to not suppressing anything for anyone, while making jokes and unifying diverse crowds through laughter. Chappelle, a Black comedian, spoke of the plight of the Black community for most of his special. 

That community, which has a history of cultural discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals, is who Chappelle is speaking on behalf of. Compared to the slow progression of Black civil rights in the United States, he expresses frustration toward the swift adoption of the LGBTQ+ community in popular culture. He’s honest about the learning curve he had to overcome, living in a society of new pronouns and a list of marginalized groups that updates each time Twitter refreshes. 

Chappelle has a right to represent his confusions, frustrations and angers toward a community without it being misconstrued as transphobic in the media. Nowadays, for an average person, being incriminated as such could mean losing their livelihood.

Luckily for him, if this special got taken off Netflix, it wouldn't negatively impact Chappelle's career. He would still be seen as one of the greatest to ever hold a microphone and, likely, given the trend of skyrocketing sales in the wake of canceled artists, he would gain a temporary boost in popularity. I'm sure even these media controversies work as well as free advertising. 

But it's not only about Chappelle. I couldn’t really care less about a rich and successful celebrity, nor his issues. Another part of free speech is the freedom to criticize, and if he wants to spout inflammatory and unflattering opinions, he has to endure the backlash of said opinions. That is what discourse is. He shouldn’t have to be silenced for his perceived word crimes, though. 

Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos, whose platform hosts much of Chappelle’s content, has made his stance on this issue clear.

“We don’t allow titles (on) Netflix that are designed to incite hate or violence, and we don’t believe ‘The Closer’ crosses that line,” he wrote in a memo obtained by Variety

This controversy is just another example of people miscommunicating the intent of a comedian like Chappelle, and missing the point of what he’s always set out to do: Making taboo topics normalized in conversation and, hopefully, funny. To me, it's a sign of progress that this conversation is being had on such a large scale because that means eventually, an understanding will be found between both sides. 

However, that can't happen with closed lips and repression of thought. 

There's also simple ways to avoid this outrage. That Netflix original content, as much as people portray otherwise, is not mandatory to watch. 

As Chappelle said in “The Closer,” “It's not like I followed you to your car making jokes at you.”

What is being shown today is that some people in the U.S. don't seem to mind the erosion of the First Amendment if it means they don't have to hear words that offend them. This is dangerous, because the same thing could happen to anyone at any time given the volatile nature of our fragile nation. 

The phrase has been repeated ad nauseam but still holds true: Either it’s all OK, or none of it is.

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