That’s half the story

Jim Sterling has an excellent essay on the recent exposure of certain youtubers for their ugly remarks, which has led to quite a bit of furor as they gasp in shock that anyone would call them out on this, let alone cause them a loss of income, while a muddling mob roars in support or protest. He makes the very good point that if you’re making tens of thousands, or even millions of dollars, playing games on the internet, then you must be the focus of a lot of attention, and you should be aware that people will notice you and sometimes criticize you. I can assure you that being public and opinionated does not mean you get parades of flowers and that everyone loves you.

He points out that the naiveté of these youtubers is silly, and also that trying to defend them by arguing that it’s simply because people have different views does not work — it forgets that communication is a two-way street, and if Famous Rich Youtuber gets to say offensive things as their right, then their audience also gets to express their criticisms.

“Sometimes people are gonna say things you don’t like,” explained Boogie in his video. “People are gonna have ideas and opinions that you don’t enjoy.”

This is true and it works both ways. One opinion and idea that several big YouTubers don’t enjoy right now is that YouTubers are relevant enough to make headlines and become international controversies. One opinion and idea that several big YouTubers don’t enjoy right now is that, no, you can’t share your racist beliefs and expect nobody to argue back.

The Internet has warped the idea of “free speech” to mean “speech without consequence” and that’s simply not what it is.

But one thing Sterling does not get into, at least in this essay, is that these aren’t just “words”, they’re ideas, and ideas have meanings and most importantly, can be wrong. It would be lovely to pretend that they’re just lexical strings, and Person A has emitted a string that provokes a different string from Person B, but both A and B are actively translating those strings into meaning, and may also translate them further into actions. We too often excuse those meanings by saying “it’s just their opinion,” but sometimes those opinions can be looked up in the truth table of reality, and that function returns a value of FALSE (Or NaN, or ERROR, or SYSTEM FAILURE, or CODE RED: MISSILES HAVE BEEN LAUNCHED.)

One response is to wag our fingers and announce that they’ve lost our eyeballs and our revenue — a purely personal and singular punishment by neglect. But sometimes that isn’t enough. When someone declares that they think all gingers ought to be lined up and shot, yes, you should turn away and shun them. But what if they have a mob of thousands at their back who all agree about the ginger exterminations? You’ve left the group, but there are still all the others who are working together and coordinating and praising the initial head eliminationist. You aren’t going to slow them down a bit.

Here’s another problem: sometimes, maybe, in addition to being wrong and stupid on some things, the person is brilliant on others. We don’t have a way to chop up the mosaic of attributes of a person and dispose of the nasty bits and keep the good parts. Now what?

For example, I think Dave Chappelle is an amazing comedian — talented and revolutionary. I have loved the guy’s routines in the past, and you can see that he’s intelligent and insightful.

He’s also…problematic, a word that is also problematically over-used. Here’s a story of Chapelle in a comedy club that praises his skills but also highlights his difficulties.

But the truth is that Chappelle’s set was riddled with transphobia, homophobia, and a bit about the Ray Rice incident that changed the energy in the room in a tangible way. He talked about seeing a drunk “transvestite” at a party, mocked her, and complained about having his pronouns corrected when he referred to her as “he”. He maintained that he should be able to use whatever pronouns he wanted. He called her a man in a dress. This bit was not really a joke, just a strange, awkward story, but people laughed. It was pure, absolute, unabashed transphobia, and it broke my fucking heart.

He then started talking about “the gays”, essentially saying that he doesn’t understand why they need a whole parade because everybody has freaky sex. He compared his foot fetish and the negative reactions and judgment he’s gotten from people for it to being gay. Don’t get me wrong – the personal stuff about his foot fucking was VERY funny. But comparing his sexual proclivities to the experience of gay people was also, ultimately, problematic and misguided. I was sitting there in the front row, laughing at his jokes but simultaneously confused and upset by where some of them were coming from, and why he felt the need to talk about being mugged by a man who he “knew” was gay from the way he walked. It was the most conflicted I’ve ever felt about comedy.

That was written in 2014.

Now he has a new comedy special on Netflix, and I have been strongly tempted to watch it — it’ll probably make me laugh throughout — but I’ve also heard that it is problematic in exactly the same way as that comedy set from 2½ years ago. There will be hilarious bits, and there will be parts that are just plain wrong and that hurt people. People are murdered for being gay or transgender, and since Chapelle is neither, he comes across as trivializing the pain of others. It kinda rips the humor out of the routine.

So I’m doing the minimal response. I’m choosing not to watch it. The ratings for his show will decline by a few thousandths of a percent.

But I also wonder if there isn’t something more that should be done. If Chappelle had been strongly chastised in 2014, maybe his 2017 special would be better. Maybe we’re doing harm to Chappelle by not loudly correcting him when he is so terribly wrong.

Because let’s make no bones about it, Chappelle is just as wrong and damaging about gay and transgender people as those youtubers are wrong and damaging about race. It’s also more than just insensitivity — these are views that do real harm to human beings.


  1. doubtthat says

    Watched first half of the New York special….

    It’s really weird and jarring. A lot of really funny stuff. A lot of really insightful stuff. Then a whole lot of really unfunny transphobic stuff. Everything has a caveat and excuse. He will introduce an obviously bigoted joke with a pretty good statement about equality and acceptance.

    It’s hard to tell if he’s just working through his ambivalence or thinks that a supportive statement excuses everything that follows.

    The transphobic bits are also based entirely on the notion that it’s inherently amusing that someone like that exists. If you don’t agree with that premise, those jokes aren’t particularly funny. I know I’m a bad person, but I can usually appreciate a well-constructed joke even if it has a pretty rough message. Those portions of the act were not that.

    It’s a very strange thing to watch. I certainly understand folks who want nothing to do with it.

  2. Matt says

    I watched the LA special last night. It’s fairly typical of transgressive standup. I was reminded of a couple of bits that Louis CK has done: the racist joke with repeated “n-words” in his Comedy Club special told, as far as I can tell, for the sole purpose of demonstrating that he could/would. And also his bit on pedophilia on SNL. I get the comics see kind of skirting the edge of what’s permissible in culture as part of their cultural purpose, that they’re trying to unearth what makes us tick, examine our preconceptions, laugh at what makes us uncomfortable. That said, I agree with doubtthat, the part of the session that dealt with trans-women was particularly clunky and unfunny. It’s not funny because it’s based on old stereotypes that are rapidly disappearing in culture, like if someone made a racist joke based on golliwog dolls.

    Chapelle’s only a couple of years older than me, but I felt like there’s a generational gap that’s opened up there–the same way I do when I hear Bill Burr or Jay Leno or Jerry Sienfeld do standup. I still think the special is worth watching; he’s funny and incisive, deliberately provocative, knows his audience, and is one of the most natural stand-up comics out there. But YMMV.

  3. says

    Everything has a caveat and excuse. He will introduce an obviously bigoted joke with a pretty good statement about equality and acceptance.

    You mean just like every racist asshole, ever?

  4. doubtthat says

    Yes and no. He’s a little more thoughtful and subtle about it. I don’t mean that as a defense, just that it isn’t the usual, “Now, I ain’t no racist, but…”

    Sometimes it’s an extended bit – a good, thoughtful joke about the difficulty the LBGT community faces, then immediately some dumb shit.

  5. chrislawson says

    Chris Rock shares this problem. One of his shows he gives an extremely powerful comic explanation of why people who aren’t black shouldn’t use a certain epithet. And then in the same routine he talks about how it’s OK for him to use “gay” as a slur because he doesn’t use it to mean “homosexual” he uses it to mean “weak”. Like Chapelle, his take on racism is powerful but he doesn’t seem capable of extending his understanding of oppression beyond what he has experienced himself.

    It’s almost like intersectionality is a thing!

  6. lotharloo says

    I have the same problem with Bill Maher. I know he’s an asshole and on many subjects he is way off, annoying, stupid, or outright offensive. But I still watch him from time to time.