[Editor’s note: This is a version of an article published in the Out of Frame Newsletter, an email newsletter about the intersection of art, culture, and ideas. Sign up here to get it in your inbox.]
The man charged with assaulting Dave Chappelle earlier this month did an interview with the New York Post, in which he said he said the comedian's jokes were "triggering."
The Post reported:
[Isaiah] Lee said he expected to have a “good time” at the May 3 “Netflix is a Joke” show — but he grew angry and frustrated as Chappelle joked about his prior controversies with the LGBTQ community, as well as homelessness.
Is this man Patrick Star from SpongeBob SquarePants? Because apparently he lives under a rock. How else could he buy a ticket to a Chappelle special without expecting to hear some offensive jokes?
(Even weirder: Lee is an amateur rapper who made an entire music video about Chappelle.)
Video of Chappelle's performance shows Lee tackle the comic on stage at the Hollywood Bowl. Security guards swiftly took down the assailant. Police said he carried a knife, but he claims he didn't have it out during the incident. Los Angeles's Democratic district attorney, George Gascón, declined to file felony charges against Lee, but Chappelle's accused attacker has since been charged for an unrelated stabbing.
Lee said: “I wanted him to know that next time, he should consider first running his material by people it could affect."
On this, I agree with Lee: Chappelle should've talked to people who would be offended by his jokes—so that he could laugh in their faces. The whole thesis of Chappelle's last special, The Closer, is that people who refuse to take a joke and demand that humor must adhere to their political dogma would leave us with a milquetoast substitute for comedy.
Regardless of whether Isaiah Lee's claims about his motivations hold up to scrutiny, his actions shed light on two ideas that are destroying art and civil society: that feelings cause actual harm and that physical aggression is an acceptable response to disagreement.
Lee is, according to his lawyers, mentally ill, but a lot of other people share his malignant beliefs.
From the perspective of those who oppose these concepts, they have been argued against so often that it has become elementary, and yet these fallacies persist. It is like that fight scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Harrison Ford's blows had no effect on the burly bald mechanic.
It apparently still needs to be said that being offended is not a material harm. I am reminded of the famous Tyler the Creator tweet: "Hahahahahahahaha How The [expletive] Is Cyber Bullying Real Hahahaha [...] Just Walk Away From The Screen [...]." But at least in the case of cyber-bullying, it can involve threats and persistent harassment that someone cannot easily ignore. In the case of this guy at the Chappelle performance (as in the notably similar case of Will Smith a few months ago), he literally just heard a joke he didn't like and acted as though he had been harmed.
Psychologist Jonathan Haidt and attorney Greg Lukianoff wrote in their 2018 book The Coddling of the American Mind about how the idea that negative emotions are the same as actual harm is a "great untruth" that is brewing division in our society. The authors explain that emotional reasoning is "among the most common" cognitive distortions recognized in psychology, and telling people to not question their feelings worsens mental illness. Quoting the philosopher Epictetus—"What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them."—they note that emotions do not necessarily give us true pictures of reality.
The corollary of emotional reasoning is that violence is a justified response to what are actually nonviolent interactions. This is a step backwards. The new norm is that instead of being called out or corrected when people dislike what you say, you can be physically attacked. Civilization depends on our ability to cooperate and discuss differences. But to the degree that they existed in the first place, it seems that the peaceable compacts of society are being abandoned. We are devolving into an age of violence, in which people can nakedly trample over the rights of others, so long as they are sure they can get away with it. Force, not reason, is becoming the principle by which conflicts are decided.
If we are going to accept that words justify violence, we may as well drop all pretense, go back to the caveman days, and be ruled by whichever alpha male is best at bashing his enemies' skulls with a wooden club.