Cancel culture doesn't silence celebrities; it merely holds them accountable for their words and actions
Early into Sticks and Stones, his latest Netflix stand-up special, Dave Chappelle says he wants to try some impressions out. In a Homer Simpson-esque voice, he whines, “Uh, duh, Hey! Durr! If you do, anything wrong in your life—duh—and I find out about it, I’m gonna try to take everything away from you. And, I don’t care what I find out! Could be today, tomorrow, 15, 20 years from now. If I find out, you’re fucking—duh!—finished.” He doesn’t give the audience any time to guess who the impression is of. “That’s you!”
This gives the veteran comedian the segue to an increasing popular rant among comedians. “This is the worst time every to be a celebrity”, he says referring to so-called ‘cancel culture.’ “You’re gonna be finished. Everyone’s doomed. Michael Jackson has been dead for 10 years, and this n**** has two new cases!” He spends a significant portion of this special, complaining about how regular people the world-over are holding him and his fellow celebrities accountable for their words and actions.
He guns for the two young men — James Safechuck and Wade Robson — who accused Jackson of molestation in the past and most recently in the HBO documentary, Leaving Neverland. Chappelle brusquely says, “I don’t believe these mother*******”, before quickly adding that if it did happen, the victims (who were 7 and 10 years old at the time) should feel honoured. “This kid got his d*ck sucked by the King of Pop. You know how good it must have felt to go to school the next day after that shit?’
Jackson isn’t the only celebrity, Chappelle thinks, who has been unfairly tried in the court of public opinion. Kevin Hart, who had to step down from hosting the Oscars this year because of homophobic tweets in the past, is ‘precisely four tweets shy of being perfect’ according to Chappelle. And, then there’s Louis CK, who Chappelle says “was a very good friend of mine before he died in a tragic masturbation accident”.
Chappelle’s calling card has always been his button-pushing comedic commentary. It’s not a surprise when he says that his response to Chris Brown’s assaulting Rihanna in 2009 was to ask ‘what had she done’. Or, when he admits that, if he were a paedophile, the child he’d most want is Macaulay Culkin. But it is ironic that he complains about this “celebrity hunting season” in his fifth Netflix special in three years (the platform reportedly paid him $60 million for the first three specials). If the ‘cancel culture’ that he is lamenting about were real, Chappelle would have been out of work a really long time ago.
What is ‘cancel culture’ and what does ‘getting cancelled’ really mean? It’s a form of social boycott of someone, most often a celebrity, who would have shared a questionable opinion or has had problematic behaviour that is called out on social media. The idea is to deprive a celebrity of attention or in extreme cases, your money. There’s a hierarchy to transgressions that could get one cancelled. At the bottom of the totem pole is saying something that offends a section of the society to more serious wrongdoings like sexual assault. This, in turn, seems to determine the degrees of being cancelled.
More often than not, though this fevered dream of cancellation is just that — a dream. In the real world, it rarely has any tangible or long-term effects on the lives of the cancelled.
Director Roman Polanski was accused of drugging and raping a 13-year-old way back in 1977. He’s been a fugitive from the US since he fled the country. In the years since, Polanksi has directed a dozen films, worked with actors like Kate Winslet and Jean Dujardin and won big at multiple film festivals including the most recent Grand Jury prize for An Officer and a Spy at the Venice Film Festival.
When photos of Chris Brown assaulting Rihanna made front-page headlines across the world, the music industry wondered if he’d ever work again. A decade later, he’s gone on to become a musical superstar. He’s won a Grammy for Best R&B Album, been nominated over 10 times since the assault, has sold out tours and has collaborated with the likes of DJ Khaled, Lil Wayne and Nicki Minhaj. Last year, Kanye West re-affirmed his support for Donald Trump and said that slavery ‘was a choice’. The musician told New York Times, “I’m cancelled. I’m cancelled because I didn’t cancel Trump”. A month later, his album Ye released and quickly became a hit.
Critics of cancel culture believe that it silences those who don’t toe the line and demonstrates a high degree of political correctness. And, that this shutting down of dissenting voices is some sort of a coordinated woke attack. Chappelle isn’t the only comedian using his platform to rant against this imaginary mob that’s out to get all non-PC folks. Jerry Seinfield, Aziz Ansari, Bill Burr, Sarah Silverman and Chris Rock have all complained that political correctness is changing the face of comedy. The legendary Mel Brooks even complained hyperbolically that ‘we have become stupidly politically correct, which is the death of comedy’.
Celebrities who have been complaining about cancel culture are those who have built a career punching down on the marginalised in society and/or have taken undue advantage of the power that comes with their fame. These public reckonings have been a long time coming. We are changing as a society. This court of public opinion is only asking for more accountability from celebrities who they have put on pedestals. That can’t be a bad thing.
At some point during his special, Chappelle says ‘If you’re at home watching this shit on Netflix, remember, bitch, you clicked on my face”. Maybe it’s time we stopped clicking on Chappelle’s face. Because like Hannah Gadsby tweeted, “pushing for a culture of respect is not the same thing as cancelling culture.”
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Updated Date: Oct 06, 2019 11:33:24 IST