Only The Sangfroid

Mark is of fair average intelligence, who is neither perverse, nor morbid or suspicious of mind, nor avid for scandal. He does live in an ivory tower.

These are his draft thoughts…

Help me, help me, help me sail away… On Chappelle’s ‘Sticks & Stones’

There is a game that the powerful play.  If you come from a marginalised background, you’re not in a position to speak out about your experiences.  Therefore, if you do speak out about your experiences, you’re not really from a marginalised background.  It’s an efficient way of ensuring that the only legitimate voices are those that are born to power.

Where are all the ‘working class’ voices in media?  Well, you see, there are some people who might have come from working class backgrounds, but they’re now in the media class, so they’re not really representative of those people who are from the working classes who don’t have a platform in the media.  Where are all the voices from the unemployed in the media?  Well, you see, there are people who might have experiences of being unemployed, but they’re now employed by the media, so they’re no longer representative of those who are unemployed and are not employed by the media.

And so on and so forth.  One of the most insidious ways this game gets played is around race.  Once a person from an ethnic minority is in a position of having a platform to speak out, they’re token white.

Race is central to Dave Chappelle’s new Netflix special, Sticks & Stones.  As such, a significant portion of the content is not designed for me — a conservative white guy — as the audience.  But this opens up the largest question of Sticks & Stones: who is the target audience?  When Chappelle opens his set openly mocking the audience, it’s clear that he has an idea of who is intended audience isn’t: a mainstream progressive audience characterised as both censorious and, importantly, predominately white.

And this kicks off the metacommentary about Sticks & Stones.  What can Chappelle, an African American man, say?  Who decides?  Is Chappelle still allowed a platform as an African American man, or must he say what white audiences want him to have a platform?  Is Chappelle — as some critics suggest by repeated references to his wealth — simply too rich to be an edgy black comic?

Sticks & Stones builds an argument about gatekeepers of speech.  Chappelle argues that he is repeatedly put into the position of having to justify to arbiters whether or not he can make political jokes.  This culminates in a rather amazing story about being summoned to values and standards and asking a white woman why he was not permitted to use a homophobic slur but he was allowed to use a racist slur.  Although the story itself is funny, the reaction in the audience — predominately African American — is amazing.  At its heart is an observation about what the ‘N-word’ means, and that it is white people who police its use through rationales that do not match how African Americans actually relate to its usage.

The argument is that the values and standards woman is representative of the predominately white progressive audience that wants to censor speech that offends LGBT audiences.  To what extent should it be permitted to police the speech of an African American man?

Chappelle addresses this in two ways.  First, by calling it out directly through the argument above.  Second, by resigning himself to its dominance.

Chappelle states that he has no idea what is going to get him ‘cancelled’, but he’s going to enjoy finding out.  By abandoning care about getting cancelled, Chappelle finds himself liberated to unleash his worst opinions.  He doesn’t believe the allegations about Michael Jackson, and denies any moral obligation to believe them.  He leans into the idea that he is a victim blamer, and he speaks out in support of one of his friends who was criticised by the LGBT community for a homophobic joke.  Some of the views are fairly gross, but they seem to be genuinely held views.  And, finally, why shouldn’t he have gross views?

The correct answer to this is, of course, that we are supposed to feel shame when we have gross views.  But we can only feel shame when we worry about the consequences of expressing our gross views.  Chappelle characterises ‘cancel culture’ as being, fundamentally, both random and oppressive.  The people he holds up as victims of this cancel culture are predominately black men.  He denies that the censor has a moral cause, removes himself from the social norm that would regulate his speech, and feels liberated to express gross views.

This is what distinguishes him from other ‘shock’ comedians like Ricky Gervais who are just throwing tantrums that they can’t say what they want anymore.  Chappelle is directly confronting something that he finds weirdly gross about mainstream progressive culture.  As he noted in another of his Netflix specials, LGBT culture has become a cover for white people doing whatever white people want to do.  Sticks & Stones flips the focus: mainstream progressive culture has become a cover for white people to regulate speech that upsets its morals.

There’s a final step to this and I think it’s where Chappelle fails to get his argument across the line: the argument is too loose and careless.  We now have a situation where the alt-right are appropriating Chappelle’s argument as yet another stick with which to beat progressives.  The framing of ‘Chappelle v Gadsby’ — one commentator even describing it as the distinction of ‘comedy v therapy‘ — plays to the view that one comedian is for the Social Justice Warrior while the other is for the plain-speaking, silent majority who hold regressive views about men being men, women being women, and check out this YouTube video about Muslims…

The ability to be misinterpreted so wildly as a supporter of alt-right views shows that Chappelle paid too much attention to one side of his argument without enough to the other.  Mitigating comments that he’s made in other specials are entirely absent from Sticks & Stones.  Going hammer and tongs after the ‘censorious’ left is one thing; doing so in a way that provides succour to the very worst people is another.  I don’t think Chappelle has achieved the necessary balance here.

Sticks & Stones is worth debating.  Are the underlying assumptions about the progressive left correct, or does characterising it as ‘censorious’ play into conservative fantasies about the left’s control over the media?  How should speech be regulated, and do old arguments about the need to resist censorship really hold up in an age where we get to see the impacts of unregulated speech on minorities?  It is perhaps the biggest failure of Sticks & Stones that it did not stir that debate constructively.


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