Dear Mr. Chappelle, Sticks and Stones Do Break Your Bones
After the huge red sign of Netflix slowly dissolved, Dave Chappelle's name, along with countless stellar-like sticks and stones came on the screen. Sounding like a recluse who resides in the edge of the universe, groping in the dark, his lonely voice sang a Kendrick Lamar bar, from the rapper’s hit single, “DNA,"
"You mothafuckas can’t tell me nothin’, I’d rather die than to listen to you. Try to run from my destruction, you know I didn’t even care".
The next hour proves that he means it: “I'm gonna say somethin’ that I'm not allowed to say.” Compared to mediocre stand-up comedies that do no more than making you belly laughs, this opening seems to have already warned the audience: please click the little x above if you're not prepared for some pain.
The name, ‘Sticks and Stones’ comes from an English nursery rhyme, which persuades the child victim of name-calling to ignore the taunt, to refrain from physical retaliation, and to remain calm. “Sticks and stones may break my bones. But words will never hurt me,” is how the rhyme goes. In August 2019, this name became a hit as Dave Chappelle’s new special. Much like students who graduated from ‘The School of Speaking My Mind’, Chappelle has been deemed “risky” and “edgy”, and his show has sparked a counter-political correctness carnival by throwing densely packed jokes satirizing sexual harassment victims, women, LGBTQ community.
While watching Sticks & Stones, you may have trouble picking up your jaw that dropped in shock, but that would be it, shock is all you will feel. Which begs the question, is that the ultimate reaction a comedian wants from their audience? Is laughter no longer a desired reaction for a comic? Or is it the uncomfortable laughter elicited by high school bully from his victim, who has no other way to respond?
Charlottesville never fades away
One main focus of this special would be the political correctness culture. In the recent political context of the United States, "freedom of speech" has often become a guise of "anti-political correctness" movements and white supremacists. When Trump imputed the responsibility of the Charlottesville tragedy to "multiple parties," the former leader of the 3K party, David Duke, praised Trump's "honesty and courage" on Twitter.
Chappelle would be one of those who believe – although he himself doesn’t seem to give a fuck what people think – that the western PC culture seems to have gone too far, into the realm of self-censorship.
But Chappelle would do well to remember that while the First Amendment's protection of speech is "content neutral"(Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press), its main aim is to make sure that public authorities would refrain from coercion. This does not mean that all kinds of speech have the same correctness and legitimacy. There is a huge different when the idea is persecuted by state authority, as against being thrown to the speech market. Political correctness lacks the sanction of the sovereign. No one has legislated to force you to be politically correct, and any criticism of your “politics” at best a result of the society’s pursuit of inner justice. Perhaps it would be easy on Chappelle and others if we just called it “moral correctness”. But morality is subjective. After all, the U.S. president, whose politics is so incorrect, still has a huge number of fans here.
Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, cited many academic studies to point out that malicious speech can completely harm human nervous system like physical violence. Yes, sticks and stones hurt, but so do words.
Women who chose not to be “cool”
Notably, Chappelle stood up for his friends like Louis C.K. The word “feminism” seems to be stigmatized, just like “political correctness” – being a feminist is not “cool” anymore in this era. We must admit that the #MeToo era has a lot of limitations. It is a huge social movement, but it is becoming a formalistic rectification: slogans and slogans, with little effect, while the protagonists are still not brought to justice. At the same time, its pre-set female-to-male resistance becomes a self-restriction of the group. In addition, whether such huge moral pressure from outside will cause the second psychological trauma of victims who do not want to stand up and testify is also necessary to discuss.
However, there are victims crying out, even comedians need people to consider them not only as performers, but also as people being capable of feeling pain: Hannah Gadsby, who once considered Bill Cosby her favorite comedian, quit because she couldn’t bring herself to participate in that humiliation anymore. One could consider the #MeToo movement itself as a kind of “callback” (one of comedy’s most effective tools, wherein a punchline is repeated in a different context, amplifying the joke’s effect). #MeToo is a collective callback to stories that women have been telling, with a new, emboldened understanding that was inadequate in the past. Obviously then, women articulated nerve-wracking parts of their stories not for upending the status quo, or seeking a change in societal attitudes, but only to become a punch line. Who cares then, that the #MeToo moment was not the first time they had spoken out?
The debate, and this is something most don’t understand, is not that "all men should be put into the same basket." It is about ensuring that a woman who lodges a complaint doesn’t lose her job for just doing so, while her male bosses, who repeatedly display a pattern of sexual harassment, remain safe and sound. That doesn’t make for good comedy now, does it?
How much of Chappelle remains in the PC camp?
The gloves actually come off in the second part of the show, concerning racial and socio-economic discrimination. It is evident that when he is on the receiving side of discrimination, Chappelle is at his creative best. He recollects conversations with his father, where his lament of "I hate being poor" was immediately met by a parroted retort from his father, “we are not poor, and poverty is a kind of mentality.” These are cleverly crafted jibes at the lack of recognition that American optimism gives to structural problems such as poverty. He is vividly articulate when describing the desperate lives of those Americans who get caught in the web of poverty.
On these issues, Chappelle’s narration of history is almost absolute. After all, the systemic entrenchment of racism in America, which began with the War on Drugs in the Nixon-Reagan era, was only furthered by subsequent administrations – Democrat or Republican. Clinton’s anti-crime policy, the War on Terror, New York’s Stop and Search laws, were all undertaken in pursuit of the Broken Window effect. The Broken Window Theory was put forward by Conservative scholars James Wilson and George Kailin in 1982. Its basic idea was that curbing petty, yet visible misdemeanors like graffiti, or petty vandalism, would have the impact of reducing serious crime since policing such misdemeanors creates the perception of lawfulness in society. In its implementation however, there was obvious racism that led to a disproportionate incarceration and penalty rate for blacks, perpetuating a vicious cycle.
Chappelle once expressed how uncomfortable he was when he realized that white folks were laughing “just a bit too hard” at his blackface skit and concluded that perhaps his attempts at challenging stereotypes failed and were simply reinforcing them. Now the question is, how can that same self-awareness implode into a cloud of ignorance when it comes to transphobia, homophobia and sexual assault?
Ridicule be best used as a shield rather than a weapon
Some would say, hey welcome to the manor of comedy, it’s made for fun, why should we mind so much? Bummer! when comedians are defining what fun is, when they try to let the audience agree what fun is, they have a responsibility created by their profession. It’s not so much a matter of what is “allowed” in comedy, as it is about designating what constitutes brilliant comedy.
When “punching down” and “punching up” in comedy are related, we are actually talking about where the cultural power of a joke is weighed: comedy has traditionally picked on people in power, comedians are supposed to be “anti-establishment,” and “disrupt the status quo.” This was the essence of Dorothy Parker’s argument that ridicule was best used as a defense mechanism for the victimized rather than a tool deployed by the powerful.
It’s true that the American history of stand-up has been one of resistance and retaliation, shaped by outsider performers punching up at dominant culture, and in recent years, women and LGBT stand-ups have used humor to challenge the logic of conventional gender roles. Still however, there have always been other performers who made careers out of ridiculing the most despised and misunderstood social groups – for much of history, women, immigrants, racial minorities, and queers have been cultural scapegoats, the targets of demagoguery. Punching down is easy, making fun of trans people is easy, antagonizing people who call you homophobic is easy. It’s much easier to join in on a crowd of people kicking someone when they’re down. It’s not edgy, it’s not creative, it doesn’t push political or comedic boundaries. It’s stale, and it’s lazy.
Chappelle satirizes the self-identity of the LGBT group and says that if he self-identified as a Chinese, only that he was born in a black body, everyone would feel ridiculous. Well, if that does happen, as an audience who is Chinese, I believe the Chinese government would celebrate for this Mr. Comedian Who Speaks For Already-Powerful: Welcome to our warm community!
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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About the Author
Zhuo holds a bachelor’s degree from Wuhan University in China. She is currently pursuing her L.L.M. at the School of Law, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). Enchanted by the complexity of our world, she is mindful of illustrating the cause of significant events with expertise. She is interested in issues of human rights, entertainment, and feminism. She aspires to contribute her passion to the process of writing and publishing, and to contribute towards the well-being of the general populace.