Some people really can’t take a joke these days, huh? Earlier this month, a man rushed the stage and assaulted comedian Dave Chappelle during a live performance. His motivations weren’t immediately clear, but we now know his assault was driven by disdain for Chappelle’s controversial comedy routine on transgender issues.
The Context: Chappelle’s Controversial Netflix Special
First, here’s the context.
Chappelle’s latest Netflix special, The Closer, was criticized by left-wing activists as “transphobic” and “bigoted” due to its outrageous, boundary-pushing jokes about transgender-related issues. Some Netflix employees even staged an internal walkout in protest, attempting (unsuccessfully) to get his wildly-popular show taken off the platform. Now, I actually watched the full special–not just the handful of out-of-context clips going around on social media–and reviewed it. I didn’t think it was motivated by hate or animus at all.
Yes, Chappelle makes several jokes at transgender peoples’ expense, but he does that to all groups–he’s an equal opportunity offender. What’s more, he actually included a heartwarming story about Daphne, a transgender comic he befriended who later died by suicide. When Chappelle goes on to lament the loss of his friend, and how she would’ve loved his outrageous jokes about trans issues, the special’s real theme seems to be one of common humanity, not disdain or bigotry.
Evidently, Chappelle’s attacker didn’t agree.
“I identify as bisexual … and I wanted him to know what he said was triggering,” Isaiah Lee told the New York Post in a jailhouse interview.
The Post notes that he has been charged with multiple misdemeanors, “including battery and possessing a deadly weapon with intent to assault.”
“I wanted him to know that next time, he should consider first running his material by people it could affect,” he added.
The Result of Labeling Speech As ‘Violent’
The attacker’s rhetoric here is deeply concerning. And, to be clear, most Americans, even those on the Left, would almost certainly denounce his act of violence against Chappelle. And no one is directly responsible for this man’s actions other than himself. However, the increasingly popular rhetoric conflating “hate speech” with violence itself does indirectly foster this kind of violence.
Think about it like this. Many of Chappelle’s critics argued that his comedic routine wasn’t just wrong, or dumb, but it endangered transgender people, putting them at further risk of violence or suicide.
John Mulaney is dangerous to us for the same reason as Dave Chappelle, he's offered the public a choice between the funny guy they know who makes them laugh, or disposing of trans people as valid beings with an interest in our own humanity— Zinnia Jones (@ZJemptv) May 21, 2022
I look at people like Ricky Gervais, JK Rowling, and Dave Chappelle, and my question is "why?" Aren't trans people's lives complicated enough without you giving hate a green light? Do you not realize that you're nurturing an atmosphere that leads to abuse, violence, even murder?— Christopher Golden (@ChristophGolden) May 24, 2022
If you want to be a trans ally follow this simple rule: Anytime someone is transphobic just beat their ass.— Ten💀 (@BlueIris04) May 21, 2022
Now, this simply isn’t true. Words are not violence. Words do not physically endanger anyone. And once people start suggesting otherwise, it puts us on a slippery slope toward censorship and violence. After all, under the twisted logic where speech is violence, then violence in response to speech is justifiable, it is simply self-defense.
War on Expression Leads to War on People
As FEE’s Lawrence Reed has explained, waging war on the expression of ideas inevitably leads to waging war on people.
“Making war on ideas is not far removed from making war on people because ideas possess no existence apart from the minds of people,” Reed wrote. “We write them down, we speak them aloud, we form organizations to promote them. Ultimately, ideas are the main ingredient in the recipe of humanity, a glorious feature that distinguishes us as much from the higher animals as it does from the lower ones. Those who seek to kill ideas—rather than debate them, advance them, or debunk them—are killers of humanity.”
The intolerant explanations of Chappelle’s attacker perfectly exemplify this truth: attempting to kill ideas is a pathway to violence.
We should all take this as a lesson. If we want to live in a free, peaceful, and pluralistic society, we must resist the urge to label the views of our political opponents as “dangerous” or “hateful” as part of an effort to purge them from the public square. We must stick to disagreement and argument, not waging war on the very expression of ideas–or assaults like what happened to Chappelle will grow ever more common.