Was Chappelle’s Recent Netflix Comedy Special Transphobic Bigotry? No, It Wasn’t

So, I just finished the Chappelle show special, The Closer, that I have seen all the headlines about. I heard about it from my wife first, and she was having difficulty deciding what to think of it and how much to believe of what she had heard (neither of us had seen it at that point).

My first thought was, “Damn. Well, Chappelle is from an older generation, so I am disappointed to acknowledge that he may be transphobic.” Keep in mind, even with my initial assumption that the rumors were likely truer than not, I had no intention of ceasing to be a fan, or of quoting “I’m rich beee-otch” or “fuck yo couch” any less. I would simply have seen him as a product of his times, someone with serious disappointing flaws, but someone who nonetheless made real contributions. I have now finished the comedy special and I am pissed at just how badly the headlines and twitter mobs have warped the content of the special.

If you search it online you will find headlines like, “Dave Chappelle finds that mocking transgender people can revive a career” from MSNBC, “Dave Chappelle vs. trans people” on Vox, and even Forbes penned the lines “the special is almost entirely centered around the controversy sparked by Chappelle’s habit of mocking the trans community” in an article on the topic. The problem is this is all garbage.

When Chappelle makes a joke, the headlines say “mocking.” He didn’t mock anyone. Mock entails a level of contempt and mean-spiritedness, and/or hate directed or felt towards the subject of a quip. Chappelle didn’t demonstrate any more hate or contempt of transgender people than black people. As a white guy I got a kick out of every joke he made where whites were the punchline. Some would say it’s the difference between “punching up” and “punching down.” I think that is a terrible way to frame things. What matters is whether contempt and mean-spiritedness are involved. The best quote on this comes from a trans women friend Chappelle mentioned during the show, Daphne: “Punching down on someone requires you to think less of them, and I know him, and he doesn’t. He doesn’t punch up. He doesn’t punch down. He punches lines.”

That alludes to one of the things I found the most irritating. Headlines focus on quote-mines like Chappelle saying “I’m team TERF” at the beginning of the bit, but all of them pretend like the incredibly humanizing and even heart-breaking part that fallowed didn’t exist. By the end of the show it was unambiguous that Chappelle wasn’t a transphobe. Throughout the show he referred to trans women quite naturally as “she” and “her” and called them by their post-transition names, except for specific comedic effect in a few instances such as with Caitlyn Jenner.

When he did say something that was admittedly insensitive, it was pretty apparent that it was not aimed at people with transgender identities. He said nothing with the intent or effect of invalidating someone’s lived identity. No, instead, his insensitivity was aimed specifically at people who have adopted an outrage culture. The people who meltdown every time someone else doesn’t use the newest pseudosocialscientific woke vocabulary words developed daily by sanctimonious self-glorifying armchair revolutionaries on Twitter and Facebook. [Spoiler alert] This latter breed of woke internautes is perhaps an immediate cause of the suicide of the transgender women and friend who the so-oft ignored rest of Chappelle’s discussion on the trans community was about.

And still the disingenuous headlines keep coming. It’s so bizarre to see all these news and opinion outlets rushing to herald this special as an indication of Chappelle’s decline and indisputable transphobia and homophobia. I’ve watched the special, and it is very difficult for me to believe that these outlets are doing this in good faith. It seems to me more likely they want to cash in on the profitable optics of looking like a woke company. I’m any case, something is interfering with their ability to respond sanely to what is one of the best Chappelle stand-up shows I’ve seen in a while.

We all know social justice is important. The LGBTQ+ community has historically faced considerable oppression, and continues to face oppression, particularly in the American South. Even recently at the federal level we had a president that attempted to reinstate a bigoted ban on transgender individuals serving openly in the military. The problem of bigotry against the LGBTQ+ community is still very real. But you’re not going to fix the problem by pillorying people who already support LGBTQ+ rights but occasionally fail to use the trendiest gender terms from woke social media. Fight the people who are actually at fault, people like Trump and Greg Abbot. But even then, I’ll have to qualify that with something woke people claim to support, but in practice often fail to exhibit: empathy and understanding of context.

The worst of the woke aren’t interested in persuading Trump supporters or conservatives who don’t support gay rights empathy. They want to think of them as subhuman. They don’t want to kill them with kindness to bring them over to supporting gay rights. They don’t want to give them the good-faith information necessary to dispel the ignorance often leading to a right-winger’s bigotry. They just want to shout and intimidate them into submission. Yes, it is true many right-wingers are largely beyond help. But on the individual level, you don’t know which ones are, so you should show the empathy to all of them when feasible. Yes, it’s true that tolerating too much intolerance can lead to the intolerance wiping out tolerance altogether. But in practice, the ultra-woke use that excuse to match right-winger intolerance blow for blow and indiscriminately, rather than strategically and case-by-case. Woke people wield their blade with drunken stupidity and the feeling of righteousness the same as a fanatical crusader or jihadist does. But I digress.

Chappelle isn’t perfect, none of us are. Imperfection isn’t an excuse for terrible behavior, but social media self-aggrandizing freedom fighters with no more perfection than Chappelle (and usually a lot less intelligence) frothing at the mouth and petitioning to cancel Chappelle are engaging in some egregious behavior. Much of which is lying about the content and reasonable interpretations of what Chappelle says. But Chappelle isn’t special in this respect. They do this to everyone who won’t join the woke cult or genuflect to it.

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