The Laramee Filter: pseudorandom thoughts, subsequently put on the Internet.
Tom Laramee
Date Published:
June 28th, 2022 at 4pm
Word Count:
3,978 (22:30 read time)
Filed Under:

In Defense of Dave Chapelle

In Which I [Unwisely] Wade Into a Cultural War Issue

I'd like to take a rare moment to write about what's likely a "culture war" topic. I usually avoid these because they're a waste of time to me, mostly because whatever the issue is it's presented as (a) there are only two options (b) they're polar opposites and (c) the arguments on either side are so entrenched in cognitive bias it's just impossible to have a conversation about all of the gray in-between.

(And let's face it: the gray is where all of the interesting conversations happen.)

It's worth noting here that any sufficiently complex socio-political issue will never be black and white. There will be nuance, and subtlety, and difficult trade-offs, and from time to time the problem of remaining self-consistent. This is nearly always the case where certain rights are applied selectively, instead of universally[1].

Another problem here is that nuance requires words .. and who has time for words anymore? Wrap it up in a 20-second TikTok video or GTFO. (This may help explain he popularity of memes, which average maybe a dozen words at most and don't really ask that much of us in terms of thinking).

A Couple of Notes On Cancel Culture Before I Begin

Cancel-culture is quite a force these days. While it may be the case that some points of view are extremely unwelcome[2][3], the idea that someone should be cancelled for articulating a thoughtful opinion about the gray area of a controversial culture-war is pretty offensive.

(And it happens all of the time)

Additionally, I'll always regard cancel-culture as a cop-out: there's no need to address the points brought up by someone else when you can attempt to simply cancel the person's opinion entirely. Personally, I find statements like "that's racist" to be more rhetorical in nature vs. seeking a higher purpose (say: to find an objective truth). If that statement took on the form "that's racist and here's why ...", well that would be just fine (because then it would be discussable), but hanging it out there as a blanket statement of condemnation without backing it up with a specific reason is much more of cancel-culture/rhetorical device than it is a genuine attempt to (a) reach a common understanding (b) find an objective truth or (c) learn something.

Believe it or not, cancel culture has been around for a very long time, and has been skillfully used as a rhetorical device to control the conversation/narrative around certain highly controversial issues[4]. It's not difficult to defend a position when you remove the need to defend it entirely by attacking the individual (and their right to speak) instead of the idea itself.

(File all of this under "World's Longest Disclaimer")

To Quote John Oliver: "Moving On"

That said, I'd like to discuss Dave Chappelle, who has, over the past couple of years become one of the most controversial comedians in the world, mostly due to accusations that he's "anti-trans" and/or "trans-phobic"[5].

I've spent a lot of time reading about him, and how/why people are attacking him, and I find it all pretty fascinating. I think the part that most jumps out at me is that nobody has reiterated, nor even mentioned, his thesis during the attacks. It's like nobody heard what he's trying to say (he's trying to say something), they just heard what they wanted to hear (a hateful, transphobic man).

I also see a dangerous precedent attempting to be set, which is: if someone finds someone else's thoughts and/or opinions highly objectionable, the listener can seek to silence the speaker.

Before I proceed, I'd like to offer up a couple of points of clarifying context:

  1. My personal feeling about Chappelle is that he's brilliant. He's the poet of a generation. I find him to be incredibly insightful, and sometimes deeply moving. The classic Erma Bombeck quote applies here:
    "There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt."
    This is what I see in Chappelle. He tells stories about himself, and also about us, in ways that, depending on where you're looking, you'll see laughter, or you'll see pain. Comedy has always abided (and/or sought out) areas of discomfort and in a world filled with half-truths and outright lies, one of the last remaining areas in which truth can sometimes be both found and explored.
    Most often, I think he offers up the opportunity for us as a collective to take a good, hard look at ourselves and to potentially both (a) learn something and (b) become better as individuals.
  2. I have no idea how we got to where we are today w/r/t trans rights, but as someone seeing this issue come up again and again, I'm incredulous as to how/why the advocates for trans rights became so fierce so quickly. From what I can tell, the only way to avoid being labelled "anti-trans" is to be almost militantly pro-trans. I have no idea how we got to this point, but even a whisper of a statement that could be construed as anti-trans will get you cancelled.
    This keeps happening, over and over and over[6]. Topics that might normally be discussed calmly, with both sides being respectful and listening quickly proceed to "fire this person" when someone questions the current trans hegemony, and that is very odd to me in and of itself[7].
  3. I've watched Sticks & Stones" and "The Closer", as well as a handful of talk-show appearances. This is to say: I haven't watched his entire filmography, but I have read an awful lot about him in the news and in various blogs.
And That Brings Us Finally, Mercifully, to Dave Chappelle

What I find most dubious about the criticisms of Dave Chappelle is that absent in any/all accusations against him is an articulation of his central thesis. He definitely has one, and it's a good one. It's just never mentioned. I find this to be extremely conspicuous, as it's a form of "lying through omission".

I'd like to do my best to state Dave Chappelle's central thesis. I'll be paraphrasing it of course, and presenting it in two parts:

Interestingly enough, the subject of the current trans zeitgeist is a peripheral issue to me. I hope kids who are trans have the support of their families, teachers, doctors, and communities. I hope well-meaning and decently-informed people are helping them make the right decisions and to help guide them to a state of existing that feels as real, genuine, true, and comfortable as is possible. I hope they are free from discrimination, harassment, and persecution.

What is very important to me is the idea that someone like Dave Chappelle is allowed to bring his insights, laments, and yes: crude jokes, out for public review, without fear of being cancelled.

And of course because I have been taught life's most painful lesson, I fully expect that not only will many people not feel the same way as I do, but that many will feel the opposite (and that's perfectly okay with me).

The Closer: It's Also About Race

Another aspect of the attacks that's totally orthogonal to my defense of his thesis but is highly germane here is that Dave Chappelle is both (a) black and (b) highly successful (read: wealthy). In America, this can be a huge problem for many people (read: racist people who believe the success of a black man takes away somehow from their individual potential to be successful). This group would like nothing more than to see Dave fall, far, and quickly.
To me, this is the "Occam's Razor" take on attacks on Chapelle. It's certainly impossible to ignore as a potential motivation for why he's so enthusiastically attacked.
Obama was the poster child for racist attacks. He rose higher that anyone ever expected a black man in America to rise, and for that he was "rewarded" with vicious, violent, racist attacks.
If Dave Chapelle is aware of all of this (and I'm quite sure he is, as he's incredibly bright), its serves as a [painful] defense of his thesis: perhaps one reason why the African American community isn't making more positive societal change is because so very many people are trying to tear down any black man or woman who begins to experience significant success (and therefore tear down their potential to serve as a role model, and a leader, and to make investments in African American communities to make them better).

And that my friends, is worse than the simple "you don't believe what I believe."

[1] A Quick Aside From Some Recent News / E.g.:
Strict "constitutionalists" marched on the capitol on Jan 6th, 2022 under the guise of "protecting the constitution". During said protest/insurrection, there's video footage of a mob chanting "Hang Mike Pence". This is a massive inconsistency, as the constitution guarantees the right to due process and trial by a jury, and hanging someone violates this constitutional right. These calls were unwise, and called for violence (execution). The call to violate someone's constitutional rights is an attack on the constitution itself, making these protestors entirely self-inconsistent.
[2] Another Quick Aside on Misinformation:
I think information the endangers human health should potentially be labelled as misleading. Many people died unnecessarily during COVID as a result of misinformation, such that it become a cliché to see a video of someone on a ventilator admitting they were wrong and warning that COVID is real and that one should take it all very seriously. That sort of misinformation directly lead to people dying, while at the same time serving no higher purpose (it's not like the "COVID is a Hoax" crowd was actually trying to achieve a loftier goal, like raising awareness of regulatory problems within the pharmaceutical industry, they were just being assholes).
Incidentally: One of the most profound ironies of medical conspiracy theories is that while we hold traditional medical establishments accountable for mis-information (think: "the low fat diet is good for you", or "thalidomide", or "promotion of smoking in from the 1930s to the 1950s", or "Vioxx", etc): we get really angry (as we should), sometimes sue them (as we should) and generally hold these institutions accountable (as we should), literally none of this is true for the promotion of mis-information by alternative media. As far as I can tell, consumers of alternative media give these outlets carte blanche to promote whatever bullshit they want, and never hold them accountable when they're wrong (not only that: people seem to dig in and double-down in the face of contrary data).
[3] Though whether, and or which statements should be flagged as misleading is quite open for debate.
[4] Yet Another Quick Aside / This One's A Classic / E.g.:
If you make a pro-Palestinian statement, you'll likely be accused of anti-semitism. I've long regarded the Israel/Palestine conflict as a "conversational third rail" for this reason. You many be making a statement that has nothing to do with Israel, in that it's all about the Palestinian people (e.g.: "the Palestinian people should have their own state", or "the Palestinian people should have equal representation at the UN", or even the more abstract "I support the Palestinian people"). These seemingly innocuous statements can (and usually are) met with blanket (and unfounded) accusations of anti-semitism, not as a vehicle to discuss a particular topic, but as a mechanism to shut down any possible discussion. In this way cancel-culture has been around for a very long time.
[5] Some references to attacks on Dave Chapelle (there are a lot of these):
*I actually believe Dahlia makes his point for him. She writes:
    "On behalf of the trans community, I’ll go ahead and address your weakest defenses. How
    much do you have to participate in my self-image? Not at all. I just want you to shut up.

Shutting up is a form of participation: it's stepping aside. It's being silent. It's as valid a form of participation as anything else (as so eloquently illustrated in the movie Dead Poets Society: "Exercising my right not to walk"). By asking him to "shut up", Dahlia is asking for his participation as a silent witness, and that's rubbish.
[6] A handful of articles in which some healthy discussion might have been applied before calls for firing, threats, and bullying:
[7] Here are a handful of discussions topics that, from what I can tell, cannot be had without fear of being cancelled:
Why is the default position of the medical community that gender dysphoria should be embraced, encouraged, accepted and treated as normal and healthy by the medical community?
Is it fair to allow a m2f TG athlete to compete as a female in sports when said athlete (a) has recently transitioned and (b) is not taking any hormone therapy to begin the process of bringing her body closer to that of a biological female, to ensure fair competition?
Does gender really trump biology, or are there times when it should be the other way around?
When is it ever appropriate to discuss sexuality and gender in a first grade classroom? (spoiler alert: the answer is "never"). First graders will simply mirror back whatever the adult in the room is saying to them, to please said adult. You can tell them anything and they'll believe it (think: Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, etc). At that age, critical, independent thought does not exist.
Why is it that the answer for how to best support trans kids is to give them anything they want, without question, as young as they'd like to see it happen? Puberty blockers, hormonal medications, or surgery. Changing a name, changing pronouns, changing legal documents. Nothing can be too interventionist and nothing can come too early. No kid is too young and no therapy is too invasive. There's no nuance. It's black and white. You either support [all] interventions or you're a hater.
Is it possible that some kids might be confusing other feelings for gender-fluidity, and may later regret their decision to become trans? Perhaps some kids are too young to make these decisions, and that as long as they're prepubescent (and lacking secondary sex characteristics), the best choice for that individual at that time might be to wait, to do nothing, and see how they feel over time. And may god help you if you point out that, statistically, there are pockets of trans kids in which it's guaranteed that one or more of them is just doing it for attention, or to be cool, or simply masking other problems.
In 2020, 1.6M people in the US identified as trans*, which is 0.5% of the population. If half of the kids in your friend group identify as trans, well that's a conversation worth having, as it's highly unlikely (statistically impossible really) that all of those kids are actually trans.
But can we have these discussions?
Or am I half-way to being cancelled for asking these questions?
I don't think we can. I can already see my "friend count" dropping on social media. I can already hear the condemnations from friends of my who are parents of trans kids. What I've written above will be read as anti-trans, simply because I'm perceived as not being head-first-into-the-deep-end in support of trans rights.
Can we talk about how, at this moment in time, we actually don't have a lot of data as to what will set trans kids up for success? I don't think we can. You're either "all in" on whatever therapy a kid wants, or you're a hater. There's no in-between. There's no middle ground.
Can we talk about this part: "Though more research needs to be done, studies show that youth who socially transition have rates of depression similar to cisgender peers."**
Or is that an uncomfortable reminder of just how much we don't know?
Another conversation I'd like to have have is: how much of these decisions should be left to the family vs public institutions like schools? Should we be discussing subjects like human sexuality and gender-identity in 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade? I don't think we should, as this will inevitably end up more like "rote indoctrination" rather than "a bunch of capable, well-informed people making a well-informed decision following the presentation of the material", as kids who are in 1st grade are likely incapable of tackling many of these subjects due to their age***.
I consider myself to be pro-trans in that I'm pro individuals' ability to make informed, age-appropriate decisions that keep them healthy and allow them to become whole, and true to their identity. I've been staunchly pro-LGBTQ for many years now and have donated thousands of dollars to pro-LGBTQ organizations (and feel the exact same way in terms of what makes me "pro").
* New study estimates 1.6 million in U.S. identify as transgender.
If we have 330M people in the US, this is 0.5%.
** I’m a pediatrician who cares for transgender kids
*** I also consider the teaching of religion at this age to be wildly inappropriate. You're not teaching: you're indoctrinating. No learning is happening: the kids are just echoing back what they heard in order to please the parents and teachers around them (and because they mistakenly believe, at that young age, that adults are infallible).
[8] I needed an example that might make sense to kids. I think this one does the trick. (Kids love whales).
[9] A partial list of areas/causes I've been involved in:
Environmental protections, reproductive rights, civil liberties, LGBTQ protections, marriage equality, volunteered at a NICU holding drug-affected newborns, was on the board of a local non-profit seeking to close the gap in poor birth outcomes for immigrant, refugee, and women of color.