Dave Chappelle, a comedian some consider to be the greatest of all time, has made a career out of controversy. Across his thirty-year career, he’s demonstrated—through his boldly irreverent stand-up, the acclaimed Chappelle’s Show, and his unforgiving public persona—that he’d be anything before he’d be a conformist. His intransigence to this end has proven extremely beneficial. The definitive Dave bows to no one besides himself and, as a matter of principle, is deathly allergic to the concepts of limits, boundaries, and the politically correct.
The result of his incendiary character, in addition to his towering wealth, is the striking polarization of his audience. The Chappelle faithful, on one hand, are a pious and prominent group including fellow comics Jerry Seinfeld, Paul Mooney, Kevin Hart, and Bill Burr (and, really, most of the comedy world), rappers Jay-Z, Nas, and Mos Def, basketball legend LeBron James, television personalities David Letterman and Jon Stewart, and hundreds of thousands of fans worldwide. On the other hand, his latest Netflix special “The Closer,” which dedicates almost a full hour to scathing jokes at the expense of homosexuals and (especially) transgender people, caused the very public walkout of hundreds of the platform’s employees, and collected the ire of several celebrities and LGBTQ+ organizations.
But the magic of Chappelle and others critical of political correctness (and its frequent bedfellow, cancel culture) is that they and their followers are only emboldened by conflict. When their behavior upsets someone, they double down and divert the blame, often insisting that the issue is not with their conduct, but rather their opponents’ sensitivity. In “The Closer,” Chappelle makes a point to share that he prefers “old-school gays,” which he describes as the participants in the Stonewall riots, over “new gays” who are “too sensitive,” all while being sensitive enough himself to spend most of his set attacking and discrediting his detractors.
“He’s so brave,” sing the acolytes—even “super brave.” “He just comes out and says it.” “He tells it like it is.” And the fan-favorite: “You can’t say anything anymore!” ‘Anything,’ of course, meaning hate speech. The sharpest of ears could still confuse the Chappelle camp’s praise with that of the previous president’s peanut gallery, or any Republican crying of “liberal snowflakes,” the “snowflake generation” or some other glacial pejorative. Many of the forty-fifth president’s supporters speak of his “honesty” and willingness to say most anything without fear of repercussion. Neither he nor Chapelle possess a filter, a fact that has greatly benefited the both of them in a country where many believe that this is the way people ought to be.
They scratch their heads bewilderedly, wondering and wondering why you shouldn’t refer to a feminist—or anyone—as a “frumpy dyke.” Or why, pray tell, those damn Democrats don’t like it when you tweet animated death threats about them. “The humanity!” they must think.
The what-is-this-country-coming-to crowd claim to be protesting the purported death of free speech, when in reality they only protest the fact that they aren’t above criticism. Roxane Gay described Chappelle for The New York Times as someone who “uses his significant platform to air grievances against the great many people he holds in contempt, while deftly avoiding any accountability. If we don’t like his routine, the message is, we are the problem, not him.” It should be clear that this indictment, particularly the last sentence, reaches far beyond Chappelle. America is practically bursting with vitriolic types imploring their targets between laughs to “lighten up” or “take a joke,” whether this follows bitterly prejudicial “humor,” the sexual harassment of someone simply going about their day, hateful tirades on the Internet, or any of their other routines. Contrary to what those guilty of this believe, America isn’t a country of censorship, but it is in fact a country of too many who believe the rules of civility shouldn’t apply to them.