Trigger warning: a conversation about rape and sexual abuse follows.
In the past week I’ve watched defenders of Dave Chappelle with growing revulsion. I’ve seen men (and women) excuse jokes about rape and paedophilia as if either subject could ever be funny. It’s not dissimilar to how both Chappelle (and his fans) offer a defense for Bill Cosby, a convicted rapist:
‘He did a lot of good, don’t destroy our hero.’
It’s as if devotion to celebrity supersedes any rational connection to basic decency. I can only attribute the galling dearth of empathy to both the inability to relate, and the desire to retain (the perception of) power.
This is clinically sociopathic.
Most men will never experience the terror of being physically violated; the abject horror of utter powerlessness. This is why the few men who speak out against rape typically invoke women they care about: a mother, a sister, a wife or daughter. They sympathise but they don’t empathise, because (in their minds) it’s a scenario they are unlikely to ever encounter.
It is a terror I am, to a limited extent, familiar with.
In 1999, I spent five days at Riker’s Island, New York City’s main jail complex, because of an unpaid ticket. The first night, when the lights went out, it took five minutes before I recognised the distinct sounds of non-consensual sex happening in close proximity.
Within the space of a heartbeat, I realised that:
1. New inmates (like me) were primary targets
2. I might not be able to defend myself
3. Any infraction could either prolong my sentence or end my life.
I was lucky; I got out unscathed. My cousin Ed was not so lucky. During his incarceration, he was raped and he ended up committing suicide.
Is rape less funny now?
Whatever your personal experiences, if your ability to feel empathy is intrinsically tied to your ability to relate, you are stunted and need to broaden your emotional bandwidth. Life is not diminished by our inability to value it.
If you don’t understand this, Google Uyinene Mrwetyana.
Last week, the 19-year-old college student went to the post office only to be raped and bludgeoned to death by a postal employee. The women of South Africa have taken both to the streets and to social media, with #AmINext and #EnoughIsEnough, demanding an end to the gender-based violence that kills one woman every three hours in South Africa.
One woman. Every three hours.
That’s an epidemic. If a virus killed one person every three hours, we’d quarantine the infected. With infectious disease, while you may never personally show symptoms or be impacted negatively, you can still spread the pathogen.
In other words: if you dismiss rape jokes, you are the warm petri dish that allows rape culture to flourish. You might not be a rapist, but you’re a carrier.
If your heroes joke about rape you need new heroes. If your friends joke about rape you need new friends. If you’re willing to overlook this kind of behaviour because you find their art redeeming, please allow me to spit in your lemonade; then try to drink around my phlegm.
Nobody is perfect, we all grow from a place of ignorance, but that’s no reason to stay there, or justify anyone who does.
In his previous Netflix special, Dave Chappelle makes a rape joke. He tells a story about a fictional superhero who only has powers if he can touch vaginas. No woman will let him just touch their vagina of course.
“So he rapes them” Chappelle jokes.
That’s it. Rape is the punchline. The audience bursts into laughter.
I watched the rest of that show in uncomfortable silence. It’s a hard world out there and I need, I deserve a good laugh. Dave’s dished out biting satire for a couple decades, and up to recently was a reliable source for tension relief.
In his current special, he pretty much waves his dick in the face of social progress. I’m the first to admit: 30 years ago, I had no problem with jokes at the expense of people who were different from myself. But like Muhammad Ali said, “If a man looks at the world when he is 50 the same way he looked at it when he was 20 and it hasn’t changed, then be has wasted 30 years of his life.”
Dave is smart enough to (try to) get out ahead of “cancel culture”. He does this (mostly) by doubling down on his right to offend. He defends people credibly accused in the #MeToo movement. He proudly calls himself a “victim blamer”. There’s an extended bit at the expense of the LGBTQ community. His history with the trans community is atrocious.
Tension relief at the expense of people forced to exist in the margins isn’t funny; it’s cruelty. I learned that from Hannah Gadsby.
He jokes about R. Kelly’s victims. He defends pedophilia. “Everybody knows there’s no such thing as good 36-year-old pussy” he jokes.
Excuse me? Any women over 36 care to offer dissent?
He does the Asian version of blackface. He jokes about gender equality. His solution to women: “You could shut the f*** up.”
All of this to uproarious laughter from the audience. Which is actually scary. Jokes are a prelude to violence. This is why blackface isn’t funny: people who laughed at blackface jokes were okay with lynching.
Chris Rock recently complained about not being able to be funny anymore because the culture shifted and now some stuff just isn’t funny. “I can’t live in this new world you’re proposing” Chappelle says. No you can’t Dave. Just please fade away, or hear me out:
Figure out what actually offends and go after that hard.
Seriously, in the age of Roy Moore, Brett Kavanaugh, Steve King, children in cages, concentration camps on the border, indigenous land and lives under assault, Dave could have used his gifts to insightfully impugn what’s really offensive. Instead of going after the powerful, he attacks the most vulnerable
It’s not just lazy, it’s also not entertaining. Challenge me. Offend me. Just don’t underestimate comedy’s ability to dehumanise.
“If you’re at home watching this on Netflix, remember b****: you clicked on my face.”
Never again Dave. There’s no one so talented that someone else who isn’t a douche couldn’t step into your place.
Jackie Summers is a writer, public speaker, entrepreneur and the creator of Sorel Liqueur. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Featured image credit: Netflix