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Humor in the Woke World: Harmful or Hilarious?

Within the first ten minutes of Dave Chapelle’s “The Closer,” he critiques Black people for “beating up his beloved Asian people,” laughs about black police brutality, and describes a plot to a movie he devised in which aliens who were banished from earth come back to reclaim it as their own and titles it “Space Jews.” He then discusses how he wants to “negotiate the release of Dababy,” commenting on how Dababy came under fire for his transphobic comments but not for shooting a man. 

His introduction is antagonistic towards nearly every identity group, but in the next hour he goes on to make commentary strictly on the LGBTQ+ community, which many perceive to be transphobic and homophobic.

In response, many LGBTQ+ activists criticized Chapelle on twitter and later organized a rally amassing 100 protesters outside of Netflix’s offices in West Hollywood to protest the company’s decision to screen the special. The ralliers produced a list of demands that included removing posters and merchandise promoting Chapelle from the Netflix offices, openly acknowledging the harms inflicted upon the trans community from Chappelle’s show and Netflix’s decision to continue streaming it, and requests that Netflix invest in trans members involvement in both production and creation roles at Netflix. 

Present at this rally were transgender employees from Netflix and their allies, Chapelle’s fans acting as counter protestors, and other stakeholders in favor and in opposition to the show. LGBTQ+ activists shouted “Team Trans” and “What do you want? Accountability! When do you want it? Now!” There were a variety of signs advocating for increased awareness, education, and support for Trans folk who felt targeted and harmed by Chappelle’s commentary. Counter protesters focused on the issue of free speech and politically correct culture, sharing messages like “Jokes are funny,” “Dave is Funny,” and “Netflix Don’t Cancel free speech.”

Additionally, organizations like GLADD and the National Black Justice Coalition responded. In a Twitter post, GLADD claimed Chapelle’s shows had become emblematic of transphobia and emphasized its support of those negatively impacted by his comedy. The National Black Association released a statement on their Twitter account as well, lamenting Netflix’s decision to allow his “lazy and hostile transphobia and homophobia.”  NBJC’s executive director David Johns specifically noted that with escalating violence against trans people, specifically black trans people, “Netflix should know better” than to continue providing a platform for Chappelle.

These organizations and many LGBTQ+ people argue that Chapelles’ remarks diminish a very real fear of being bullied, attacked, and or ridiculed when making simple everyday decisions. They claim that when Chapelle says “gender is a fact,”  he undermines a trans person’s ability to identify with a gender they were not assigned at birth. Additionally, when he jokes about the appearance of a trans person, this minimizes complicated elements involved in trans people’s gender expression which have real world impacts. For instance, in response to a case in the U.K. where a trans women “tricked” another women into believing she was a man, with her appearance, to engage in sexual activities, a law was passed that puts trans people at risk of facing rape charges if sexual history isn’t disclosed. 

However, as the LGBTQ+ endorsed ASUC senator Gabrielle Sharp stated, “I know [Chapelle] said stuff about Jewish people, I know he said stuff about white people, I know he said stuff about Black people, I know he said stuff about every ethnic group I could probably think of…” Still, even though he joked about everyone, Sharp points out that his comments towards the trans community were particularly problematic because trans employees lost their jobs after speaking out against Chappelle. But this isn’t the case. In fact, no employees were fired (some were suspended and then reinstated) for charges directly relating to speaking out against the special. 

Regardless, the core of her argument remains, which is that “If you are capitalizing off of other people’s pain…that is unacceptable.” This is what she believes Chappelle and other comedians have done in many cases. 

This isn’t the first time Chapelle has been scrutinized, nor is he the first comedian to face backlash for insensitivity. Instances of comedians coming under fire date back to the early 20th century where the same struggle between free speech, censorship and hate speech played out like they do today. 

Since the 1900s, comedians have received death threats, been pelted with eggs, and encountered protests against their jokes. In the last couple years specifically, Kevin Hart declined taking the hosting role at the Oscars after coming under scrutiny for homophobic comments. More so, Ricky Gervais faced scrutiny for making a number of transphobic tweets and defended R.K Rowling’s trans commentary. Rowling has made a series of transphobic comments while simultaneously showing support to the trans community. More recently, SNL faced criticisms again for transphobic jokes after making a joke about the military transgender ban.

However, many comedians continue to stand their ground despite a long documented history of what many believe are grave harms that comedians have perpetuated against certain communities, like the LGBTQ+ community. Chappelle is no different. After the backlash Chappelle received in response to his special, he responded on Instagram, asserting he would not “[bend] to anybody’s demands…” Yet, he also expressed his willingness to engage in open conversation on the topic. He says, “if you want me to meet with me, I’ll be more than willing to… you cannot have this conversation and exclude my voice from it, that is only fair…” 

Chappelle and other comedians who have used free speech in their defense have rejected concerns around political correctness and argued that “wokeness” (being aware and active in terms of addressing social justice issues) strips humor of its ability to make light of issues. They argue that when using humor to be brutally honest, stereotypical, or cynical, we often face deeper truths within ourselves or others. When we laugh at the realities we face, which are often painful, it can be restorative and healthy in terms of speaking openly about our feelings, learning from them, and building the tools to face them in the future (just how people address all other forms of negative feelings).

Additionally, comedians and free speech activists claim that wokeness and PC culture place emphasis on how the audience feels when hearing a joke, often allowing one to over-personalize a joke and or take it out of context. Put differently, audience members may confuse intent from impact; they may believe the comedian means one thing when in reality she means something else entirely. While misunderstanding may bring up unwelcome memories of traumatic events and thus an apology for one’s unintended effect may be warranted, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is something more to say other than “this joke was intended to be received differently.”

It may be that one joke feels wrong because it is commentary that is true but comes from someone who can’t understand the nuance or reality that is being joked about. However, it is because the joke-maker can’t understand the experience that it should be viewed as it is — just commentary meant to make light of human experience which is complicated and uncomfortable for everyone. 

Further, while certain jokes can cause emotional harm, prohibiting this type of joke out of fear of it causing harm when in most instances it provides comic relief and enjoyment to those engaging with it, creates this idea that we lack the agency to address the pain we feel. Instead of cancelling comedians, which does nothing to provoke productive conversation and prevent harms inflicted, audience members should address their feelings personally and distance themselves from comedians they know that make this commentary. This is especially true when you consider that it is often difficult to discern what a comedian really believes or who he is when he’s just trying to make people laugh.  

This is not to negate or condone the harms committed emotionally and especially in scenarios where someone is maliciously, physically, attacked as a result of a joke. This scenario, however, is less common than experiencing emotional harms and is more obviously unacceptable and incriminating. 

The alternative can mean that emotional responses are treated as morally superior to fact or reality which is what psychologists have considered is representative of “an escalation of narcissistic behavior” that wrongfully goes unquestioned in society. Others view this backlash against comedians to have political motivations; as a WSJ reporter put it, progressives have engaged in “comic murder” by cancelling right-leaning figures, but not left-leaning individuals making the same jokes others perceive not to be politically correct. 

Still, fears of being villainized or cancelled and complaints around PC culture may be overkill. Dave Chapelle, Jimmy Carr, Bill Barr, Jimmy Kimmel, Jimmy Fallon, and Tina Fey among many others all have made questionable jokes and yet have not been cancelled. In fact, there are plenty of media platforms ready to fulfill each of your non-PC joke desires: I Hate Suzie, Fleabag, There She goes, Jerk, Feel Good, Dreaming Whilst Black, South Park, Family Guy, Rick and Morty, and so on. As Ricky Gervais said in a 2019 Tweet, “PC culture isn’t killing comedy, it’s driving it.”  

Perhaps, however, these older comedians are just reluctant to move-on to a new era of humor that doesn’t entertain hate speech. Comedians may be pigeonholing themselves in terms of what they can say, reluctant to find the right ways to feed the audience well-placed jokes because they have an ax to grind with media and corporations who have logged complaints about their comedy (but yet haven’t punished them). 

There isn’t necessarily a need to limit what is talked about, only new consideration that should be given to how jokes are said and delivered. This change can be viewed positively; it shows that society is progressing. In fact, a new group of comedians demonstrate this change; comedians like Hannah Gadsby, Nish Kumar, and Sara Pascoe, are famously funny and yet don’t come down on certain groups. Additionally, there are shows like The LOL Word and FOC It Up! and movies like Endgame that demonstrate this new wave of comedy.

Nevertheless, considering the concerns of both these comedians and the marginalized communities they’ve provoked, the best path forward is finding a way to use humor that works for everyone — that is, respectful humor. To achieve this, it seems that the first step, and the biggest, involves listening to viewers who have been genuinely harmed by this type of comedy and accepting that certain jokes don’t provide comic relief or an ability to connect through shared experiences (this is also in the interest of comedians in terms of delivering a better punch-line). Society at large can do better to engage in active reflection, listening, and emphasizing with marginalized communities. 

At the same time, those expressing that their feelings are being hurt may benefit from reorienting their position, depersonalizing comments in order to make a distinction between jokes that genuinely provoke harm and those that are controversial. As an Atlantic article puts it, the reaction to Dave Chappelle’s show could be described in two ways: “rich comedian attacks marginalized community,” or “Black comedian attacks elite consensus.” If read alone, one of these headlines makes you believe that Chappelle’s show is a personal attack and the other allows you to understand his political leanings and view his show as a social commentary, one that is more raunchy than most. And if you find both of these characterizations of Chappelle’s show distasteful, then it may be time to find a new comedian.  

There is a fine line that we all dance on when balancing what to say and how to say it so that we are understood by others. This challenge, which exists with jokes but also in everyday conversation, illuminates the complexities of how humans digest criticism in both productive and unproductive ways.

In a sense, the question of if certain humor is warranted comes down to how we quite literally take a joke. When the mind encounters something painful, regardless of where that pain is targeted, there is a reflex that is triggered to put up a protective barrier. In the cases of certain groups like the LGBTQ+ community, who have disproportionately high rates of suicide and depression, the wall that goes up when something is perceived as harmful is most likely helping that individual protect themselves from re-experiencing or envisioning trauma that feels real and present.

However, whether the joke is really a threat can be muddled by emotional response. Building a tolerance to that discomfort, fortifying one’s sense of self, and or laughing along with these painful anecdotes may also prove to provide the same feelings of safety that an otherwise “protective” approach may provide. The question is if society is willing to work on this together openly, culturally and socially, and hopefully with some humor. 

Featured Image Source: African Leadership Magazine

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