Dave Chappelle and the Creeping Concept of Blasphemy
A successful movement needn’t believe in a god, but it does need to believe in a devil.
As western society has become religiously more diverse (with the arrival, particularly, of Muslim migrants and immigrants), western liberalism—broadly construed—has struggled to accommodate a traditional commitment to free speech with an increasing sensitivity to religious pique (the most notable such pique being the violent reactions of some Islamic adherents in the west to unflattering, blasphemous depictions of the Prophet Muhammad).
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An argument has been put forth that Muslims experience Islam differently than Christians do Christianity, and that this difference—partly, at least—accounts for the divergent reactions to blasphemous material within the respective religious communities. See, for instance, the late UC Berkeley professor Saba Mahmood’s “Religious Reason and Secular Affect: An Incommensurable Divide?” from the Summer 2009 issue of Critical Inquiry. According to this argument, Christianity is a mere belief system, with its attendant commandments and admonishments, a system to which one can choose to subscribe or not. One’s belief may be sincere, even intense, yet Christianity is more a spiritual elective than a constitutive part of one’s identity, more a holy abstraction than a corporeal part of one’s daily life as a Christian. And this—the argument would have it—explains the relative ease with which Christianity coexists with secularism and with civil society’s commitments both to freedom of speech (even blasphemous speech) and to the separation of church and state (in America, at least).
The same argument has it that Muslims, by contrast, experience Islam on a much more constitutive basis. Mahmood wrote of how the faithful interact with the Prophet:
Muhammed is regarded as a moral exemplar whose words and deeds are understood not so much as commandments but as ways of inhabiting the world, bodily and ethically. Those who profess love for the Prophet do not simply follow his advice and admonitions . . . but also try to emulate how he dressed, what he ate, how he spoke to his friends and adversaries, how he slept, walked, and so on. These mimetic ways of realizing the Prophet’s behavior are lived not as commandments but as virtues; one wants to ingest, as it were, the Prophet’s persona.
When it comes to ingesting your moral exemplar (the focus of your veneration and worship), it’s hard to beat the Eucharist. But Mahmood was attached to the idea that this was a uniquely defining aspect of Islam, and she reiterated and reinforced her point using such words as inhabitation, cohabitation, consubstantiality, immanence, similitude, and habitus. In short, the argument has it that Christianity is something a person believes, and believing is something one does, whereas being a Muslim is just that—a state of being, something one is. Therefore, freedom of speech is an insufficient concept when addressing the profound sense of personal injury a Muslim might experience as a result of blasphemy.
Of course, numerous religions find their adherents corporeally inhabiting their faith—through emulation (baptism by water in Christianity, mortification of the flesh in various religions), through ritual forms of dress and grooming (everyone from Sikhs to Mormons to Jews to Muslims), through dietary traditions (Hindus, Jews, Muslims), and through the daily pursuit of virtue (virtually all of them, no pun intended). Christians believe that mankind was made in God’s image, and that the body is therefore a temple, within which the Holy Spirit resides. Hence the idea that cleanliness is next to Godliness, though devotional hygiene and self-care are hardly exclusive to Christians. Some sects speak in tongues—talk about bodily inhabiting your faith (or being possessed by it). Others claim to be born again.
Yet Mahmood’s apparent belief that embodiment, consubstantiality, and the like are peculiar to Islam led her to believe that blasphemy is felt uniquely among Muslims not just as a transgression of religious law (that is, as a juridical matter) but almost as a physical wound, an inflicted sickness or injury, a violation of one’s very self, which at least partly explains the more extreme reactions to blasphemous material within Islamic communities. But given that such embodiment, as established above, is not exclusive to Muslims, it would be reasonable and empathic to assume that by the very same standard Christians have been equally sickened and wounded, say, by Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ; by the animated TV shows South Park, Robot Chicken, and Rick and Morty’s gleefully irreverent depictions of Jesus; by Monty Python’s Life of Brian; and by Lenny Bruce’s quip that “If Jesus had been killed twenty years ago, Catholic school children would be wearing little electric chairs around their necks instead of crosses.” Do these all constitute non-crime hate incidents one could label Christ-phobic? Should South Park, Robot Chicken, Life of Brian, and Rick and Morty be stripped from streaming services? Were conservative senators Jesse Helms and Alfonse D’Amato (among others) right to object to Piss Christ? Were the cancelers justified in taking out Lenny Bruce, and should Spotify and the like be compelled to efface him from cultural memory by removing him from their offerings?
Never mind Christianity—yoga, which is indivisibly focused on the body as well as the mind, has deep spiritual roots in Hinduism and Buddhism. Does such embodied spirituality mean there can be no more yoga jokes, lest we sicken and injure those emulating the Buddha?
The First Amendment and its Establishment Clause offer no special, legal protective status to any group. Everyone—whether in the majority or the minority, whether religious or not—has both the equal opportunity to be offensive (within broad limits) and the equal opportunity to be offended. Yet where the “right” to be offended is concerned, one increasingly sacralized group is succeeding in being more equal than others, the better to enforce social censorship, and is doing so on precisely the grounds laid out in Mahmood’s essay: by claiming that offenses felt by its members are almost bodily in nature—intolerable, threatening blows to the members’ sense of personhood (if not their very lives)—and that given the quasi violent and supposedly hate-motivated nature of such offensive material the group requires and deserves protective status as a vulnerable minority (protection manifested, again, as social censorship against those to whom the group objects).
Which brings us to Dave Chappelle and his latest run-in with transgender activists, a run-in that resulted in Minneapolis’s First Avenue club cancelling and relocating a Chappelle show mere hours before the scheduled performance, after transgender activists on the venue’s staff took to social media to complain of their employer’s decision to book a comic whose words made them feel unsafe.
“Dave Chappelle has a record of being dangerous to trans people,” a petition on Change.org read, “and First Avenue has a duty to protect the community. Chappelle’s actions uphold a violent heteronormative culture and directly violate First Avenue’s code of conduct. If staff and guests are held to this standard, performers should be too.”
The last sentence is fatuous. By that logic, if performers have access to the stage and to private dressing rooms and are paid, guests should be too. Performance halls—ever and always, and by design—are scenes of glorious inequality, with the performers onstage bathed in light and amplified to the rafters, often transgressing social norms to the delight (and expectation) of the audience itself, while the guests pay to sit at their feet in the dark and enjoy the show within the venue’s rules, and while the staff serves drinks to make a wage plus tips. There are hierarchies and double standards where showfolk are concerned (at least during performances), and if we’re being honest, we wouldn’t have it any other way. Egalitarianism is the stuff of encounter groups and union halls, not entertainment venues. And “a duty to protect the community”? Dudley Do-Right couldn’t have said it better.
As for the talk of heteronormative violence and danger—talk used to justify calls for cancellation—it is not without some basis in reality, yet it has become casual, unexamined boilerplate in these sorts of debates, and closer examination is in order. According to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project, 4,042 trans and gender-diverse people were reported murdered worldwide between 1 January 2008 and 30 September 2021. That averages out to roughly 300 trans murders per year worldwide—300 too many—but the distribution is far from even. Roughly 41 percent of the reported murders come from Brazil alone, and another 15 percent come from Mexico, giving just those two countries a 56 percent share of the worldwide total over that time period. Add in the rest of Central and South America and you’ve accounted for 78 percent of the total.
The United States contributed 8 percent, with 324 murders over the nearly fourteen years. That averages out to roughly 24 murders per year in the United States, about equal to the ten-year (2012–2021) average of people who died each year in the United States from lightning strikes. That every one of those murders is lamentable should go without saying. Yet these numbers seem surprisingly low considering the endless and reflexive assertions that violence and murder are suffered disproportionately by the trans community here in the United States.
One might reasonably point out that the trans community makes up a relatively tiny percentage of the overall U.S. population, so the lightning-strike analogy is misleading in that it fails to measure those tens of deaths per year against the trans community’s much smaller numbers (relative to the U.S. population as a whole), which would make those tens of deaths per year proportionately larger. This is true, and should be factored in.
According to a June 2022 Pew report, 1.6 percent of adult Americans identify as transgender or nonbinary. For those under the age of thirty, the number climbs to 5.1 percent. Comparing these percentages against overall U.S. homicide totals for 2020 (the most recent year for which such stats are available) and against the Trans Murder Monitoring Project (TMMP)’s Stateside total for roughly that same year reveals what should be welcome news. The total number of people murdered in the United States in 2020 was, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 24,576. The TMMP reports that between 1 October 2019 and 30 September 2020, 28 trans people were murdered in the United States. The TMMP’s number for that time period is roughly one tenth of one percent of the CDC’s total for 2020. If we use the TMMP’s number (53) from the subsequent twelve-month period, it amounts to a little over two tenths of one percent of the CDC’s 2020 total. The CDC and TMMP date ranges don’t exactly align, of course, and the numbers do increase (as homicides did overall, significantly, for 2020), but the percentages are a sliver of those established by Pew, indicating—reassuringly, one would think—that trans people are at the very least not disproportionately the victims of the most violent of violent crimes in America. Indeed, something like the opposite seems to be the case.
The TMMP numbers do get woefully disproportionate when the profession of the victims is taken into account. In the two annual TMMP reports linked to in the preceding paragraph, it was noted that among those whose occupations were known, sex workers made up 62 percent and 58 percent of the victims, respectively, and more than a third of the murders in each report took place in the street. But this demonstrates not so much a peculiar vulnerability among trans people as it does the acutely elevated risk of violence associated with sex work, particularly that involving street walking. This is true no matter one’s gender. One study states flatly: “It has been estimated that women involved in street prostitution are 60 to 100 times more likely to be murdered than are nonprostitute females.” And another study confirms that, “Prostitute women have the highest homicide victimization rate of any set of women ever studied.” The danger resides primarily in the work, not in the gender identification of the worker. (Yes, transgender street-walkers are involved in what is called “survival sex.” But what street-walking prostitutes aren’t performing sex on a desperate, transactional basis related to their needs—be those needs food, shelter, protection, drugs, or whatever else is deemed necessary for their survival? Does anyone think non-trans prostitutes are just nymphos who enjoy the night air?)
But to take TMMP numbers, ignore all such specificity (related to which countries and regions are most violent and which profession is most at risk), and use them to justify cancelling a Dave Chappelle show in Minneapolis on the grounds that Chappelle is a clear and present danger to the community is a bit of a stretch. Imagine American Christians borrowing the elevated levels of anti-Christian violence in Pakistan and Nigeria to beef up U.S. numbers (which do exist) to prove that Robot Chicken is a direct, Christ-phobic, physical threat to the well-being of American Christians and should be removed from all cable and streaming services. Would we celebrate that as nothing more than Christians practicing their right of free speech and moral suasion? Or, more likely, would it be seen as cultural and moral overreach (and specious into the bargain), involving one group dictating to others what the others should be allowed to see and hear?
An aside regarding those U.S. numbers: The FBI’s hate-crime statistics from 2019 (the most recent year available) include 1,521 religiously motivated hate-crime incidents, which made up roughly 21 percent of all hate-crime incidents recorded that year. By comparison, sexual-orientation and gender-identity hate crimes made up roughly 19 percent of the total. Jews were by far the most targeted religious group, accounting for nearly 63 percent of the religiously motivated hate-crime incidents. (And, you know, there are a lot of Jew jokes out there, including by Chappelle. Does that make him a dangerous, violent threat to Jews?) But Christians—whether Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox, Jehovah’s Witness, or “other Christian”—were the second-most-targeted religious group, accounting for more than 12 percent of the total, just slightly ahead of Muslims. No one has a monopoly on being hated and targeted.
Back to the First Avenue cancellation: A Twin Cities nonprofit called Reclaim, which helps local queer and trans youths gain access to mental-health services, protested the Chappelle booking on its Instagram by citing Chappelle’s “history of transphobic rhetoric that has directly harmed the queer and trans community we serve.” That’s a statement as frivolous as it wants to be serious. If someone has “directly harmed” another, and this can be so flatly asserted (and presumably established), then that person has committed assault, against which there are laws. If in response to this crime against the community that they’ve deputized themselves to protect and serve all Reclaim and the First Avenue staff thought to do was sermonize on social media and cancel a comedy routine, then they’re morally and legally derelict. Someone should be filing a police report.
But that won’t happen, because all this loose talk about Chappelle being a violent, dangerous bringer of harm is but a variety of threat inflation, hyperbole meant to morally coerce others into silence and/or assent. We’ve seen recourse to similar hyperbole recently with the bullying, accusatory misuse of such terms as treason and disinformation. Only in the court of public opinion (if even there) can one’s claim of having suffered violence and offense serve as its own proof of another’s having culpably committed a violent offense. Hence, again, no police reports but lots of trembling grief on Instagram and Twitter about violence having been committed—a process that reveals not only the unseriousness of the claims against Chappelle but also, as he continues to defy cancellation, the need of the online deputies to be ever more strident in making those claims.
But what if there really has been someone of bigoted leanings who, after seeing a Chappelle special, was motivated to commit a hate crime against a trans person? Or what if there really has been a trans person who, after seeing a Chappelle special, felt so violated by the comic’s sentiments that he/she/they was driven to self-harm? And what if, in both cases, this could be established? Would Chappelle be responsible?
No, he would not. Just as abridging speech is a double wrong (committed not just against the speaker but also against all who have the right to decide for themselves whether they want to hear and listen to that speaker), speech itself entails a double responsibility—that of the listener as well as the speaker. Actions taken on the part of a listener are not the direct responsibility of the speaker unless that speaker has engaged in speech that is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action,” per the Supreme Court’s June 1969 decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio (yes, the Klan case).
That same summer of 1969, Nina Simone took to a stage in Harlem and chanted to a lively and receptive audience the following words: “Are you ready black people? Are you really ready? Ready to do what is necessary? To do what is necessary to do? . . . Are you ready to kill, if necessary? Is your mind ready? Is your body ready? . . . Are you ready to smash white things? To burn buildings? Are you ready?”
One doubts there’s anything quite so explicit and exhortatory in Dave Chappelle’s oeuvre, but even if someone in the audience left that concert and saw fit to smash white things, even to kill, Simone—per the Brandenburg standard—is guilty of nothing more than performing political art (and being one of the most singular talents and distinctive voices in twentieth-century American music). Simone does sound awfully close to advocating violence, but the standard upheld in Brandenburg is that advocacy is not the same as action, and that this distinction must be kept strictly in mind, lest the urge to aggressively suppress get the better of us.
As we have argued elsewhere, the danger of incessantly and recklessly equating words with violence must be far more carefully scrutinized than has become the custom. The more we’re encouraged to think of words as violence, the more some among us will likely come to think of violence as a proportional response to words—an eventuality every bit as tragic, if not all the more tragic, if the violence is turned on the self. Given that thoughts and rates of suicide are particularly high in the transgender community, it would seem that trans activists would be motivated toward linguistic precision and rhetorical prudence in this matter, for the sake of the community they represent. To indulge in threat inflation and to encourage its perception among people who already feel an elevated sense of vulnerability and threat seems misguided at the very least, perhaps even unkind and cynical.
It may serve the group overall to unify in opposition to an improbable folk devil like Dave Chappelle, whose sinister and particular habit, they claim, is to target them for suffering. Such a claim helps the group achieve the status of blasphemed martyrs, which allows them to wield the greatest possible moral influence in society. But this conjuring and amplification of supposed devilry and menace may be taking a hideous toll on individuals within the group—a toll then laundered through social media and attributed to the devil himself. (Of course, this can no more be proved than can the charges that Chappelle has directly contributed to harm and violence, but it does seem intuitively possible, even likely.)
The First Amendment and the Establishment Clause accommodate not only all manner of religion but all manner of religious pique (short of actual violence)—the quasi religious pique of trans activists being no exception. They are perfectly within their rights to get in a holy uproar over Dave Chappelle and that other, equally improbable folk devil, J. K. Rowling. And we really should celebrate scenes of trans activists raising a mild ruckus outside a Minneapolis performance hall (exhibiting no sense of being menaced or targeted whatsoever) while Chappelle, equally unmenaced, charmed audiences inside with his wit. Free speech all around. But when the activists try to limit who can access the public square, who can speak and what can be spoken, and what can be seen, heard, and listened to by the rest of us—when they essentially try to establish their standards as the only allowable standards—then they’ve gone from exercising their rights to infringing on everyone else’s. And that deserves active opposition all its own.
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