Month: November 2022

On Dave Chapelle, Overrepresentation, and Free Speech

I have dedicated my career to learning and teaching, to engaging intellectually, and to advancing First Amendment rights and free speech values.  I do not believe Dave Chappelle should be censored or cancelled.  I quite enjoy some of his comedy (he has some blind spots, as we all do).  I believe it is beneficial for us all to have a comedian not shy away from controversy.  But I also believe what he did was appalling and should be rebutted.  In calling “the Jews” censorious and controlling of Hollywood, and using generalizations that would not have been accepted against any other group to an uproarious audience on live television, he proved how wrong he is about Jews’ historically and exceptionally principled attitude about free speech and comedy, and how wrong he is about power and control.

Dave Chappelle’s ability to claim there are so many Jews in Hollywood in a way that was acceptable to a mainstream audience is a product, to some degree, of the progressive project to prove that any disparities in any institution, where a group is underrepresented, must be due to some sort of inequity.  (Others believe these disparities perpetuate inequities, which I agree must be true and combatted.) Certain segments of society have accepted this idea that proportionate representation is the only way that equity exists as almost gospel.  Once you accept that, its corollary must be true – that if a group is overrepresented, it must be due to privilege or something nefarious.  This is likely at the heart of much historical antisemitism, but now it is acceptable and hilarious for famous people to say it out loud. 

Jews used to change their names to succeed in Hollywood, and hide their identities, and yet they succeeded anyway.  Quotas used to keep Jews from the best law schools, yet they flourished and created their own law firms.  This could be due to a variety of reasons, partially and undeniably an intellectual culture and an abstract method of discourse learned from a young age (moving to the Midwest, I realized that method of discourse and reasoning was not universal) and a way of engaging with their religion.  Or it could be an adaptive response to millennia of being a small minority that everyone else was trying to eradicate from the planet. 

If Kanye West has claimed on Twitter that he was going to lambaste any other minority group, his contract with Adidas would have been revoked much sooner.  Yet Dave Chappelle is agitated that Jews receive any backlash against such blatant antisemitism.  It is such a perversion of the truth to say Jews stifle dissent, when the lawyers representing Neo-Nazis who wish to march are often led by Jews, guided by the principle that dialog should be open and engaged with. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions issue is a complex one, because boycotts are often not actually speech but anticompetitive conduct, and much of the criticism of Israel does reflect double standards, if not antisemitism. But it is the case that many groups, including some Jews, often improperly call certain viewpoints bigoted, to the detriment of free discourse.

At a time of increased antisemitism from both the right and the left, when our institutions are – for good and for ill – trying to rewrite rules and standards to promote greater equity, and ensure that no group is underrepresented, (and thus no group is overrepresented), Dave Chappelle’s views about who benefits from power are entirely tone deaf and cheap, but we Jews will mostly tolerate them, including those on stage who had to sit there smiling at Dave Chappelle’s false prophesy.  We will tolerate them because we have engaged with the higher principles at stake, and I wish Dave Chappelle would focus on his own blind spots and do that as well.

As much as Dave Chappelle believes people cannot say what he said, I believe it’s difficult in this climate to say what I am saying.  Yet we are both contributing to an important conversation.  Dave Chappelle cannot be canceled, and I admire his bravery.  I have tenure, and I believe the ideology that has led to his monologue, while having some virtues, should also be countered as incomplete and harmful.