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Chappelle defeats ‘cancel culture’ and confounds his critics

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It’s “cruelty,” Salon’s Melanie McFarland scolds.

“Offensive in all the wrong ways,” wails Vice’s Patrick Marlborough.

Most popularly — to repeat a charge several critics have lobbed — Dave Chappelle is “punching down.”

A stand-up mainstay still known for his hit three-season Comedy Central sketch show, Chappelle’s being raked over the coals for jokes about gay and transgender people on his new one-hour Netflix special, “Sticks and Stones.”

Calling the condition of feeling born into the wrong body a “hilarious predicament,” Chappelle tries to identify with transgender people by imagining he, an African American man, was inwardly Chinese. Critics blast his subsequent impression as “racist” and conveniently leave out that he mentions his Asian American wife in the bit.

Openly chafing against political correctness, Chappelle muses that the “alphabet people” — members of the LGBTQ community — are the only group no one’s allowed to offend. The outrage that followed his stand-up special only serves to prove his point.

“Woke” pundits eyed the cultural weathervane and some decided simply critiquing the act wasn’t enough. Chappelle is dangerous and his voice must be muted. Netflix users were urged to boycott the streaming service, which paid the comic $60 million to record three original specials.

Free speech cuts both ways, and no one says you have to like Chappelle’s jokes, pay to see him perform or even watch “Sticks and Stones” before expressing an ill-informed opinion about it. Criticize all you like. What’s concerning are the calls to action and the “cancel culture” consensus that Chappelle must be punished. His platform must be taken from him, the microphone snatched from his hand.

Comedy is the canary in the coal mine for freedom of expression and the health of our public discourse. Lenny Bruce was famously arrested on obscenity charges in 1962, then convicted and later acquitted on appeal. George Carlin faced an obscenity arrest in 1972 and a broadcast of his “Seven Dirty Words” routine led to the Supreme Court upholding the Federal Communications Commission’s power to police indecency on the public airwaves.

As U.S. culture liberalized — I’m using the word liberal to mean tolerant and broadminded, which some would argue are not hallmarks of the modern left — comics were afforded more freedom to offend in the pursuit of revealing hard truths. Then the pendulum began swinging in the opposite direction.

In 2001, ABC canceled contrarian comic Bill Maher’s “Politically Incorrect” in the wake of insensitive remarks following the Sept. 11 attacks. Over the next decade and a half, proclaiming to be offended became a virtue. Beloved funnyman Jerry Seinfeld said in 2015 that he’d stopped playing to college crowds due to an increasingly censorious climate.

A documentary about the PC phenomenon and its influence on comedy, “Can We Take a Joke?” was released the following year. Writing for RogerEbert.com, Matt Zoller Seitz panned the film with a 1½-star review, grousing that grizzled comedy club vets were simply out of touch.

For fans of free speech and transgressive comedy, however, the battle isn’t lost. The overwrought denunciations of Chappelle sparked a backlash. Review aggregation site RottenTomatoes.com noted that “Sticks and Stones” has received an abysmal 17% favorability rating from critics — and a sterling 99% rating from the public.

The debate’s taken on partisan overtones, with conservative media outlets rallying to Chappelle’s side. When political correctness becomes a fault line, we see the odd bedfellows politics can produce, like right-wing talking heads sticking up for a comic who’s praised former President Barack Obama and skewered President Donald Trump.

Chappelle’s detractors profoundly misunderstand his message. Chappelle isn’t transphobic or “punching down.” In fact, his gags serve as an olive branch of inclusion to marginalized communities. Declaring people off limits for good-natured ribbing is paternalistic and serves to infantilize them, not empower them.

“If you’re in a group that I made fun of, then just know that I probably will only make fun of you if I see myself in you,” Chappelle says in the special’s closing minute. “I make fun of poor white people because I was once poor. And I know that the only difference between a poor black person and a poor white person is that a poor white person feels like it’s not supposed to be happening to them. Everything else is the same.”

That explains white privilege as well as any college textbook. But Chappelle still isn’t “woke” enough for most members of the professional pundit class. Maybe the joke’s on them.

Corey Friedman is editor of The Wilson Times. Reach him at 252-265-7813 and cfriedman@wilsontimes.com.

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