Brendan O’Neill

Hands off Dave Chappelle!

The attack on the US comedian should trouble us all

Hands off Dave Chappelle!
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The attack on Dave Chappelle last night was chilling. Sure, Chappelle wasn’t hurt. His attacker, having encountered the ire of Chappelle’s quick-witted security team, seems to have come off a lot worse. But the fact that controversial comics are now being physically accosted is deeply concerning. It suggests that the new intolerance, the widespread distaste for anything ‘offensive’, might be reaching its violent stage.

Chappelle was recording a Netflix special at the Hollywood Bowl when a man leapt on stage and barged violently into him. According to the LAPD the man was carrying a replica gun that shoots out a knife blade ‘when you discharge it correctly’. So this was a very serious incident. It seems reasonable to suspect that this person intended to cause Mr Chappelle significant harm. Chappelle, being the consummate comic, swiftly milked the incident for laughs. ‘It was a trans man’, he said to the audience, a nod to his penchant for cracking gags about transgenderism. But I bet he feels rattled by what happened.

It is still unclear who attacked Chappelle, or why. But as much of the media coverage has pointed out, this stage-storming comes in the wake of the demonisation of Chappelle as a repulsive bigot who must be silenced. Chappelle is one of the cleverest and most daring comedians in these strangely stifling times. He pokes at identity politics, the culture wars, the trans agenda. And this has made him a devil figure in the eyes of the cancel-culture mob. They long for his metaphorical scalp.

There have even been protests against Chappelle following recent Netflix specials in which he announced that he was ‘Team TERF’. Chappelle, like many of us, just doesn’t get the idea that a man can say ‘I’m a woman!’ and, boom, we all have to accept that he’s a woman. So he makes jokes about it. For example, in his special The Closer, filmed last year, he lampooned the time Caitlyn Jenner was given a Woman of the Year award: 

‘Her first year as a woman… Never even had a period. Ain’t that something?’

For this, for having the temerity to mock the orthodoxies of the identitarian era, Chappelle has been mercilessly demonised as a transphobe, a hater, a wicked man deserving of cancellation. (‘Careful, they after you’, he recounts a friend telling him. ‘One they or many theys?’, he responded.) At last year’s anti-Chappelle protests outside Netflix HQ in LA, people waved placards saying ‘Transphobia is not funny’ and ‘Black trans lives matter’, as if Chappelle’s humour was a threat to life itself.

Even today, some are focusing on Chappelle’s allegedly scandalous humour rather than the fact he was rushed by a man reportedly carrying a dangerous weapon. His ‘trans man’ joke has upset people, apparently. ‘Dave Chappelle’s joke that attacker was 'trans man' sparks outrage online’, says a headline in Newsweek. Listen, if you are more outraged by a comedian’s jokes than you are by an incredibly menacing attempted assault on said comedian, then the problem is you, not Mr Chappelle. It’s you whose moral compass is bust.

This is the context in which last night’s stage-storming took place. It remains to be seen what the attacker’s motive was, but who among us would be surprised if he wasn’t at least a little influenced by the defamatory branding of Chappelle as a ‘phobe’? This attack might turn out to be something like the armed wing of cancel culture: some try to cancel the offensive with censorship and deplatforming, others perhaps opt for a more violent form of silencing. 

People can’t take jokes anymore. First there was Will Smith smacking Chris Rock for making fun of his wife’s bald head at the Oscars, now this. (Chris Rock went on to the stage to chat with Chappelle after last night’s incident. ‘Is that Will Smith?’, he asked.) The broader problem here is the growing trend for viewing certain words and ideas as violent. Offensive jokes ‘erase’ us, campaigners say. Off-colour humour is a kind of micro-aggression, we’re told. Minority groups can feel ‘wounded’ by criticism, identitarians insist. In short, words hurt. So doesn’t that make it legitimate to hurt the people who utter those problematic words?

The idea that speech is a form of violence is incredibly dangerous. It implicitly green-lights violence in response to speech. Enough is enough. Hands off Dave Chappelle!