When We Argue About Dave Chappelle, We Should Recognize That Super-Wokeness Is Mostly An Elite Phenomenon
Despite loud claims to the contrary, the cancellation culture wars aren't about liberal versus conservative, or white versus nonwhite
What should we think about Dave Chappelle’s most recent Netflix special, “Sticks & Stones”? We should be disappointed in it, if not outraged by it, according to some culture critics. After all, Chappelle spends a chunk of the hourlong set making defiantly offensive jokes about both his own prior travails being criticized for transphobia, as well as important contemporary social-justice battles more broadly — trans rights and #MeToo and the reckoning over Michael Jackson’s alleged sexual abuse of children. This, say the critics, is just plain wrong, and a frustrating departure from his earlier, meatier work.
“In his occasionally funny new Netflix special, Chappelle continues to make anti-trans and victim-blaming jokes,” goes the subhed of an article in BuzzFeed. “Why can't he strive to be more thoughtful?” “Where his prior missives against the ills of political correctness were often contained to segments of his shows, Sticks and Stones is astonishing in its unrelenting clarity about where Chappelle’s sympathies lie,” explains an article in The Atlantic, which also argues that his recent work “whiffs most obviously of the celebrity’s deepening anxieties about the social movements shaping the country.”
These are just two of a veritable subgenre of articles that all seem to be interpreting “Sticks & Stones” through the same, very particular lens. Many are strikingly similar to another set of articles that came out after a Louis C.K. set was leaked late last year as that comedian made his first ginger steps back into standup in the wake of a scandal involving his habit of masturbating in front of young female comedians (behavior he admitted to). “Louis C.K.’s Rebrand Is Old Crank,” wrote Jezebel back then, echoing the sentiments of many others: Louis C.K. made fun of pronouns and the Parkland kids in the leaked set, and that, the logic went, proved he was truly no longer One Of Us.
Taken together, these two mini-uproars over comedy sets nicely capture an important and misunderstood cultural divide between a small, highly educated and privileged subset of the country and everyone else — including a sizable chunk of the Democratic base.
In both cases, critics of the comedians in question tried to portray their most recent work as a sudden, jarring shift from what they had produced before. Suddenly, Louis C.K. was “punching down.” Suddenly, he was using his comedic powers for evil, not for good. This argument, which popped up everywhere, made no sense if you were at all familiar with C.K.’s past work. This was a guy who, before and during the time he was garnering glowing coverage as a hero of humanistic, progressive comedy, was making jokes about how it’s okay to use the word ‘faggot’ as long as the target is sufficiently mockable, and how sad it was he couldn’t say it anymore, and who once said, during a hilarious segment on his irrational hatred of deer, “I would happily blow 20 guys in an alley with bleeding dicks so I could get AIDS and then fuck a deer and kill it with my AIDS.” During that same segment, he referred to a “faggot cunt n*gger deer.” But now he’s an offensive crank! Here’s Slate, about a full decade later, responding to C.K.’s use of the phrase “Jewish faggot” in a characteristically over-the-top part of the leaked set: “Whatever you think about C.K.’s past use of slurs in his act, his old material at least made some attempt to think about what they meant.” Ah, yes, that thoughtful critique of deer.
In the case of Chappelle, too, critics have been squinting really hard and ignoring a great deal of the man’s previous output in order to draw a stark line between his old and new material. Back when he was celebrated almost unanimously among progressive culture critics, he had a recurring slapstick character named Tyrone Biggums whose entire shtick was… being a crackhead.
In his legendary Wayne Brady sketch, violence against sex workers was used as a plot device to show how evil the fictionalized version of Brady was. A major point of his “Niggar Family” sketch — which centers around a very white 50s-era sitcom family with that surname — was how ostensibly funny it was to hear to hear a matronly white character say, of a baby photo, “He’s got those Niggar lips!,” or a white father recoil with horror when he hears his daughter is going out with “a Niggar boy from school.” Sometimes these jokes and segments made broader points, but often they really didn’t. Sometimes they were just funny on account of being shocking, which is, after all, how humor works sometimes.
So the claim that both these comedians have taken some dark thematic and political turn is mostly off-base. Rather, what’s going on is that their output is now being judged in a very different light because they have been ‘cancelled’ (C.K. more so than Chappelle, of course). It is a weird sort of retconning that makes the narrative more tidy: These guys were Good, and now they’re Bad. Their comedy tells the story; it traces a neat and satisfying arc.
There are plenty of completely disingenuous, opportunistic actors on the right who rant about cancel culture or political correctness solely as a means of bashing the left. These are people who are outraged — outraged — that anyone would be upset with Dave Chappelle, but who will then turn around and try to get someone fired for, like, insulting cops. We should acknowledge that these people exist and shape many left-of-center folks’ impression that this debate is all just bad-faith political football.
After we acknowledge that these people exist, however, we should move on — because this conversation’s true center of gravity lies elsewhere, which is a fact a lot of pundits are ignoring or distorting. This isn’t about left versus right or powerful versus powerless.
Two moments in “Sticks & Stones” capture Chappelle’s qualms with cancel culture, which are a bit more nuanced than the cartoon being drawn by some critics. In the first, Chappelle relates, with frustration, an incident in which a standards and practices employee at Comedy Central told him that while it was okay to use the N-word, the word ‘faggot’ was off-limits. In the second, he talks about getting a drink with a trans fan of his after a set in San Francisco. She points out that it doesn’t really make sense to claim, as some have, that his infamous (and hilarious) R-Kelly bit normalized the singer’s behavior or somehow insulated him from criticism, and to then turn around and claim that jokes about trans people harm rather than ‘normalize’ them.
Whatever you think of these particular arguments, or the amount of time Chappelle spends complaining about being criticized (not how I would use such a perch!), he is simply pointing out that these rules about what he can get away with saying can sometimes seem arbitrary and inconsistent. And this is an argument that appears to have a great deal of resonance among Americans, blue and red alike. Chappelle’s would-be cancellers ignore it at their own peril.
Those who view any critique of cancel culture or political correctness as inherently bankrupt often derail conversations about it by claiming that PC is simply a synonym for “Being a decent person” — if you’re a decent person, in other words, you won’t get in trouble, and you’ll have nothing to worry about. But this isn’t how most of the country sees things, and it doesn’t accurately capture how the rules over who can get away with saying what are made, revised, and enforced.
The best data we have suggest that the vast majority of Americans view political correctness as a problem, and that, contra the claim of many progressives, this is not a battlefield consisting of resentful ranting whites on one side and oppressed people on the other, the latter simply asking to be treated and spoken of with decency. In fact, the people most enthusiastic about intense forms of language-policing tend to be more privileged and more white, according to a national political-correctness survey conducted by the firm More in Common that made headlines last year. As Yascha Mounk wrote in his writeup in The Atlantic, “While 83 percent of respondents who make less than $50,000 dislike political correctness, just 70 percent of those who make more than $100,000 are skeptical about it. And while 87 percent who have never attended college think that political correctness has grown to be a problem, only 66 percent of those with a postgraduate degree share that sentiment.” Moreover, “Whites are ever so slightly less likely than average to believe that political correctness is a problem in the country: 79 percent of them share this sentiment. Instead, it is Asians (82 percent), Hispanics (87 percent), and American Indians (88 percent) who are most likely to oppose political correctness.”
Now, people have criticized that survey on the grounds that if you ask people whether “X is a problem,” where X is a culture-war buzzword, you’re likely to get a lot of positive responses. I think there’s something to this critique, but the numbers are too overwhelming to fully discount it. I also think that if you’re going to argue that PC is just a synonym for “being a decent person” you should then explain why so many Americans think that concept is a problem. Are Americans that invested in indecency?
Plus, it would be one thing if this survey were some sort of strange outlier, but if you look at the data we have on specific culture-war blowups of relevance to the PC and/or cancel-culture debates, you find the same pattern over and over. Almost always, the opinions most commonly represented in mainstream progressive outlets are not held by the masses, including by the groups seemingly with the most at stake. I’ve written about this before: On issues ranging from Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal to the Washington football team name to what term(s) should be used to refer to people of recent Latin American descent, woke-progressive opinion is often very out of line with that of the majority of members of the groups in question. Not only do the wokest progressives not speak for Americans; they don’t speak for the groups they’re claiming to want to protect. A 40-year-old American Indian from Oklahoma — that paragon of wealth and privilege and white resentment, of course — made this point pretty succinctly when he was interviewed for a focus group which accompanied the release of the More In Common survey: “It seems like everyday you wake up something has changed … Do you say Jew? Or Jewish? Is it a black guy? African-American? … You are on your toes because you never know what to say. So political correctness in that sense is scary.”
I was reminded of that Native American guy recently when I saw Dictionary.com announce that if you do not capitalize the ‘b’ in ‘black’ when discussing race, “it can be seen as dismissive, disrespectful, and dehumanizing.” I’m sure it can be seen that way, but by what sort of person? How many people in this great nation of ours believe that you are ‘dehumanizing’ millions of people if you write “black Americans,” but granting them their full humanity if you write “Black Americans”? What kind of a neurotic, catastrophizing nerd would possibly think this, and how many academic degrees did they rack up before they came to this conclusion?
Then another example popped up just a few days ago: Walter Mosley, a writer for “Star Trek,” quit his job there after he was reported to HR for using the n-word in the writers’ room. Except he’s black, and he was using it in the context of talking about a time he was called it:
I just told a story about a cop who explained to me, on the streets of Los Angeles, that he stopped all niggers in paddy neighborhoods and all paddies in nigger neighborhoods, because they were usually up to no good. I was telling a true story as I remembered it.
Someone in the room, I have no idea who, called H.R. and said that my use of the word made them uncomfortable, and the H.R. representative called to inform me that such language was unacceptable to my employers. I couldn’t use that word in common parlance, even to express an experience I lived through.
There are so many other examples of situations in which normal, everyday people seem to respond negatively to these sorts of punitive approaches, even if there will always be a smaller and louder group of fierce partisans cheering some such outcomes. To take two of a trillion recent(ish) examples, a lot of people seem to be uncomfortable with the idea of a graduate student being hauled before administrators for criticizing Israel on a listserv, or a professor being forced to resign for criticizing cops and the American flag.
The point is, the idea that only a bigoted white redneck would raise an eyebrow at the claim that the adjective ‘black’ is dehumanizing, or find it outrageous that a black man could get in trouble at work for relating a racial slur he was the victim of, or wonder aloud why, on so many issues on which woke progressives are holding a given opinion to protect a given group, members of that group disagree, or get tired or frustrated by the seemingly arbitrary nature of complex linguistic rules and over-the-top social-media cancellations and bloated, overbearing administrative entities on college campuses, is silly.
Because the fact is that the rules often aren’t particularly coherent, and they’re being created and enforced most enthusiastically by people who represent a very small subset of American public opinion. Yes, there is a whiff of get-off-my-lawn orneriness to Chappelle’s act (So what? Plenty of standup comedians mine their cantankerousness for comedy), but he’s also making a fair point: You laughed at my slapstick crackhead and my joke about Wayne Brady assaulting a sex worker and, in this very special, about white heroin addicts, but these other jokes, those are just too much? Why? Who made these rules? Why do I have to follow them? Why am I being judged by such a different standard now that you all have decided I’m bad?
One more time: I understand that it is very profitable, in a masturbatory sense, to pretend that on the “anti-PC” side, we have a bunch of white people who desperately want to hurl ethnic slurs at minorities with impunity, and that on the “pro-PC” side, we have a rainbow coalition calling merely for decency. Those aren’t the real battle lines here, though. When these blowups happen and make national news, they are usually about much more nuanced issues than that — tricky questions about what’s acceptable, who decides, what the ‘punishment’ should be for violating certain norms, and so on.
If a subset of progressive culture critics all seem to be speaking the same rarefied language with regard to Dave Chappelle and Louis C.K. and cancel culture in general, and to have implicitly agreed on a specific set of rules that don’t seem to be based on any sort of real reflection or deliberation — who ever agreed that comedians can’t “punch down”? Many of the most popular comedians and funny films and standup specials ever include a ton of punching down! — it could be because journalism consists, more and more, of people from privileged backgrounds.
Here I’ll have to speculate a bit, and make a bit of a circumstantial case, because I don’t think we have great data to work with. But it stands to reason that as journalism collapses, the proportion of privileged people in the field is increasing. A subset of journalism used to be genuinely working class, and a vehicle for class mobility: You could claw your way up, starting at a small newspaper, even if you came from a humble background. Those days are gone — while most progressive outlets are becoming more racially diverse, which is an unalloyed good, it’s also plainly true that these days, you’re much more likely to be able to take the profound financial risk of jumping into the shark-infested waters of journalism if you have an emergency life-raft of family money than you are if you come from a humbler background. (I should be clear here that I’m from a privileged background myself, and it absolutely helped me gain a foothold in journalism.)
And if you have a bit of family money, you’re more likely to have been educated in an environment like Harvard or Wesleyan or [insert your own personal least-favorite selective school here]. There’s an important gap between the levels of racial and socioeconomic diversity at top universities — they are often more racially diverse than the country at large by many metrics, but much less socioeconomically diverse. According to the New York Times’ exceptionally useful tool on college economic mobility, 67% of Harvard students come from the top 20% in family income, and just 4.5% from the bottom 20%. It’s the same deal at Wesleyan: 70% of students there come from the top 20%, family-income-wise, and just 4.5% come from the bottom 20%. Both these schools have decent-enough-looking racial diversity statistics, but the majority of kids there are quite privileged.
The specific approach to language so many Americans reject comes from these sorts of environments. It comes, primarily, from the most privileged classes, and from the fact that when you’re a member of these classes, most of your friends and partners and political conversations tend to be dominated by other people from this echelon, and everyone is obsessed with language. As a matter of correlation, I think it’s almost undeniably true that if you’re the sort of person who thinks we should spend a sizable chunk of our fighting-for-social-justice capital on battles over linguistics, and on monitoring and denouncing the culture for impure influences, you are likely to be highly educated and probably fairly wealthy. (Again: correlation. This doesn’t mean every wealthy politically engaged person is writing excruciating think pieces about how South Park’s lack of sensitivity sparked Europe’s far-right revival, or every poor politically engaged person is fighting 100% for a higher minimum wage while ignoring the culture wars raging around her.)
If I’m right about that, and if I’m right that journalism is becoming less and less socioecomically diverse, that could help explain why so much of the reaction to Chappelle’s work is deeply out of line with the rest of America’s values and priorities in a very broad sense that goes well beyond red states versus blue states.
So there’s a reason Chappelle’s loud rejection of his attempted cancellation might be resonating with his fans even as it enrages many culture writers: The rules may be well-intentioned, and may be uncontroversially correct on the most obvious points (don’t use racial slurs to insult people), but beyond that they aren’t necessarily coherent or fair, and they are ever shifting, and they are handed down by a relatively small and privileged group whose members believe in them wholeheartedly and feel a moral imperative to punish deviators. They’re the result of what this group decides, at a given moment, to be the right way to talk or think or do comedy, and there’s always a risk it’ll be different tomorrow. Overnight you can go from neutrally describing a racial group to stripping its members of their very humanity, simply by failing to hit the shift key.
The rules also aren’t exactly conducive to free-wheeling, funny, sometimes shocking comedy — and that’s what most people, including most liberals, want when they see standup or stream a comedy special. Just ask the Netflix executives who invested tens of millions of dollars in Dave Chappelle.
He won’t be easy to cancel.
Questions? Comments? Cancellations? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org Or on Twitter at @jessesingal.
Good article, one other factor in the turn against free speech is the decline of cultural conservative institutions and social conservatives in elite institutions.
Liberals in the 1950s through the 90s were much more likely to be free speech absolutists because the Church was much more powerful in people's day to day life. Also the upper echelon of elite institutions contained cultural conservatives.
In 2020, the Church is powerful but far far weaker as religious observance has declines. Evangelical christians are much less likely to attend elite universities that serve as the gatekeepers to elite universities.
For a lot of cultural liberals, free speech threats in the private world seem less concerning because the powerful actors seem to share their values. Whether this perception is accurate is a different discussion.
Free speech always seems less important when you think the censors are going to be you and your friends.
"What kind of a neurotic, catastrophizing nerd would possibly think this, and how many academic degrees did they rack up before they came to this conclusion?"
Whenever I hear people talk about how certain words are powerful I think they must have no idea why Monty Python's "The Knights Who Say Ni" is funny. When the knights say "Ni" and everyone is running around cowed by the word they must think that that makes total sense. That's the power that words have.