Words as violence: Dave Chappelle and freedom of speech

August 19, 2022 • 11:30 am

The Free Voice, the website of the United States Free Speech Union, takes up the issue of “words as violence”, instantiated by two issues: the claim of some Muslims that anti-Islamic speech is more dangerous than speech criticizing other faiths, and the cancellation of a Dave Chappelle comedy show in Minneapolis because some transgender activists claim that Chappelle is a “transphobe” and that his act is harmful to transsexual people. Both the religious and transsexual activists see criticisms as “violence”, demanding special immunity from both criticism and mockery. Click to read.

I’ve seen only snippets of Dave Chappelle’s act that got him in trouble, and it seemed to me to be the Lenny Bruce brand of humor: saying what makes people simultaneously laugh and be discomfited—all with the aim of getting them to examine their views. While I didn’t find it nearly as funny as some of his other bits, it is free speech, people would have filled Chappelle’s audience, and it’s wrong to allow the bullies to cancel his show on free-speech grounds.

As for Islam, I regard it as the most dangerous current religion, though Catholicism used to be at the top. Right now only four words need be said, “Charlie Hebdo” and “Salman Rushdie”.  All religions should be criticized and, when necessary, mocked, and none are exempt, including Islam, which especially deserves opprobrium for its violence and oppression. (Note: I’m not saying that all Muslims are violent and oppressive.)

Author Jon Zobenica cites a paper from the journal Critical Inquiry arguing that Islam is uniquely harmed by criticism, mainly because, in contrast to Christianity (but not Orthodox Judaism!), Islam is a way of life, not merely a set of beliefs. My response is “so what”? If something offends you, don’t listen, and above all don’t try to cancel it. Or protest if you will, as vociferously as you can, but don’t claim that you’re being harmed by verbiage that’s “violent.”

This goes for Chappelle as well. Zobenica tries to defend him by a tactic I don’t find particularly palatable: showing that the rate of murder of transssexual people is much lower than people think—about 24 per year. His point seems to be that transsexuals aren’t really being “harmed” in disproportionate numbers:

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.

But this addresses an argument that differs from the free-speech argument: the claim that transsexual people are especially vulnerable victims of violence. While the data don’t seem to support that (and the issue of high murder of sex workers needs to be addressed), this says nothing about whether criticizing transsexual activism or making it part of a comedy routine is wrong, much less causing that “violence.” Routines like Chappelle’s almost certainly don’t provoke violence. While every death is to be mourned, and, in my view, transsexual people should be treated with respect and, with very few exceptions, given the same privileges and rights as anyone else, that view says nothing about one’s right to criticize them or make them into subjects for comedy. This might be tasteless, as people claim Chappelle’s routine is (I’d need to see it first), but to say that he—or Islam—are to be censored because they promote violence is putting the blame on the wrong people. Zobenica explains how American courts judge whether words are “violence”:

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.

The Charlie Hebdo affair and the attacks on Salman Rushdie and others who have criticized Islam worry me. If you think of words of criticism—words that are permissible under the First Amendment—as “violence”, then you’ll be more likely to use violence against those who utter them. I don’t think Dave Chappelle or J.K. Rowling are endangered, but as the “hate speech as violence” meme spreads, who knows? Indeed, that’s what this article warns against:

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. . .

This kind of rhetorical inflation has to be stopped. When someone brings up the “words as violence” trope, remind them of the decision in Brandenburg v. Ohio.

20 thoughts on “Words as violence: Dave Chappelle and freedom of speech

  1. > Islam is a way of life, not merely a set of beliefs

    That is a bogus argument. I have atheist friends living in Israel, Italy, and other highly religious places. Their way of life is still culturally determined, even if it originated with someone else’s religion. English-speakers still refer to the fifth day of the week as ‘Thursday’, even though most of us don’t believe in Thor. My atheist Israeli friends still have trouble finding a good Hawaiian pizza or bacon cheeseburger; some would not even consider trying it because it feels as wrong as it would feel to me to eat a cat. Many American atheists and Jews still have Christmas trees. Many people still circumcise their children (don’t get me started on that).

    Even as atheists, much of our ‘way of life’ originated with religious traditions.

    In a prominent country where women were prohibited from driving, the argument slipped seamlessly from “it’s the law” to “it’s religion” to “it’s a tradition”. Regardless of which one it is, people should be able to examine the origins of the rule, question it, criticize it, and overturn it, just as most of the world has done with slavery. How much longer until we hear the argument again “You can’t question my views on slavery? They are intrinsically tied to my religion and culture!”

  2. But humor—and satire in particular—always offends somebody, and is therefore a microaggression by definition. In academia, we can look forward to the day when hiring, promotion, and tenure will require Solemnity Statements, affirming that
    that the applicant is wholly free of and will vigorously discourage any trace of humor.

  3. To point out the inherent difference between words and violence, I use the following example:

    If you don’t speak or read English, and I write and/or say the word “chair”, the sounds and the symbols will be meaningless to you. It’s just noise and squiggles. On the other hand, if I hit you over the head with a chair, it doesn’t matter whether you know the English word for it or have ever even seen a chair before: you’re going to be damaged, physically.

    That’s the difference between words and violence. Words can be ignored (or not) and even not understood. But violence cannot just be ignored. I sometimes feel that the people who claim to equate words and violence must really have had lives in which they have not experienced any violence themselves, ever.

    I guess that’s a good thing; well, what am I saying, of COURSE it’s a good thing. But just from personal experience, it’s possible–even relatively easy sometimes–to ignore insults and slights, and even to hold the originators in contempt and dismiss them as foolish. But if a gang of guys suddenly and for no particular reason surrounds you and your friend and beats the crap out of you, breaking your nose and messing up your jaw alignment, you can’t just shrug and ignore it.

    I don’t wish such experiences on people (well…not many, anyway), but good grief, the lack of perspective, and the whiny, manipulative nature of such tactics as used by those who make claims that speech is violence as an excuse to curtail free expression in their favor ought to be embarrassing, at least.

    1. If someone hit you over the head with a chair because that person was told by another person that you are evil because of your race of religion, are not words the root cause of why you were attacked? You are making a dichotomy between words and actions, but it is a false one. Words can incite violence, either implicitly or explicitly. A call for violence uttered implicitly (not urging in straightforward words to do physical harm to others) is often used to protect the speaker from not being protected by the first amendment. But, the recipients of the speech know exactly what the speaker wants. Thus, the argument that words cannot cause physical harm while violence does is much too facile. It is rare that individuals engaged in violence for political or social reasons, whether individually or in groups, are not motivated by the words of others.

      1. You know what? If someone hits me over the head because of that, THEY are responsible. How do you know that the guy wanted to be hit over the head.
        I guess we have another reader who doesn’t hold to the law’s interpretation of the First Amendment.

    2. > I write and/or say the word “chair”, the sounds and the symbols will be meaningless to you. It’s just noise and squiggles.

      I like the idea, but am not sure how well it holds up. Can cracking/hacking damage a computer? Cracking only uses words and characters, right? Not all computers have the same languages installed. If I issue a command that forces your computer to erase its hard drive, a command that wouldn’t work on your neighbor’s Linux installation, can I argue that it was not an act of violence/damage/harm, because only some computers would process the command in a harmful way?

      Now, if you show me a series of flashing lights and noises that don’t have any effect, that should be fine, right? Send an epileptic a link to the same image and you’ll put him into a seizure. People are now being found guilty of triggering other people’s epileptic seizures on purpose.

      I totally support freedom of expression, but I suspect that this is the generation where it dies.

      1. Well, computers are a subtly different instance than a human, and we’re talking about humans. And an attack deliberately and knowingly designed to trigger a seizure–or perhaps the words of a Bene Gesserit from Dune–is a form of violence that bypasses understanding to act directly on the nervous system.

        1. That’s the trouble. Expression is expression. The right to free expression is something the speaker/creator/expresser/artist has. It doesn’t matter who the audience is: adult or minor, citizen or foreigner, healthy person or epileptic, human or computer. As soon as we start carving out exceptions, the entire argument for free speech is weakened. And no, I am not interested in what arguments the courts have made; freedom is an ideal, and the government can only weaken that. I wonder when we will see more free speech zones hosted outside of the US. As soon as we say we need the government to protect certain audiences from the harms of expression – be they computers, epileptics, or children – we are on an ugly path. It seems like freedom of speech will be under attack, not only by the New Right and the New Left, but also by anyone afraid of the implications of today’s (and tomorrow’s!) technology. Expressions can literally kill people now – and I still want to protect freedom of expression (and not just the way various courts around the world choose limited definition of the term).

          One item in the news this week was that a pop song from the 1989 resonates at a frequency that will destroy some 5400 RPM / 90 Hz computer hard drives, whether played by the computer or a nearby device (different generations of HDs react to different resonances). I’d love to see the inevitable court cases.

          Shutting up now. 🙂

      2. If you damage my computer or its files you’ve damaged my computer or its files. Doesn’t matter if you didn’t damage my neighbour’s computer. Next case.

        The link is from 2019. The story said the person who sent the message that caused the seizure was expected to plead guilty. Do you know if he actually did? Otherwise you can’t say anyone was found guilty. Ditto the accompanying civil suit.

        The prosecution’s argument doesn’t seem so controversial, though. As was pointed out in a brief, flashing a laser pointer at a pilot is a crime. A message tattooed on your knuckles with which you punch someone is not protected speech. Under the thin-skull rule, an assault that wouldn’t cause more than annoyance to most people is a crime if it harms the predisposed, like the person with epilepsy. The assailant takes his victim as he finds him, particularly if the attack is tailored to exploit the known predisposition of a specific person. I’m sure it would depend on all the facts of the case but a guilty plea sounds sensible from what’s reported.

        But the point is, none of these things counts as speech. The defendant was grasping at straws claiming it was a 1A issue, with no support from any quarter for the argument. The issue was whether the strobe tweet counted as assault even though there was no physical contact other than by photons. Seems that it is. Freedom of speech may be at risk, but this isn’t it.

  4. It’s worth remembering that while Chappelle is accused of “literal violence” for his remarks about transgender people, his Netflix special The Closer finishes “with a story about Daphne Dorman, a transgender comedian he had a role in mentoring. Dorman died by suicide after opening for Chappelle during his Sticks & Stones tour; Chappelle alleges she experienced online harassment from people in the trans community for defending Chappelle’s comedy”. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Closer_(2021_film)#Synopsis

    Those who claim that words are violence need to acknowledge that, if so, then it’s a two-way street. Or don’t the rules apply when it’s a transwoman like Rachel McKinnon (now Veronica Ivy) telling gender-critical people to “die in a grease fire”?

  5. I watched the controversial show by Chappelle, and found nothing offensive in what he said about transgender people. I am amazed that so many are finding offense. However he did a tasteless rant about beating up a lesbian in a bar. He did say in advance, to his credit, that it wasn’t real and he didn’t really do that. But I am amazed that people found the transgender part offensive, but not the part in which he celebrated violence against a lesbian.

  6. I have a theory, which is my own, that the world is a much smaller place than it used to be. Back in the Middle Ages you might know a hundred or so people well. Anything more than 6 miles away (the maximum distance to the nearest market town in England) was really distant, and although people did travel and trade over longer distances those longer distances lent detachment. News of bad things like wars, crusades, or jihads of the sword, might take months to reach your hamlet, and so were less threatening.

    Nowadays the TV and internet put you in contact with thousands and millions of people so edgy language is more immediately ‘personal’ and amplified by social media. The world is not so distant, detachment not so easy. Which is why free speech *should* be defended in an attempt to promote detachment and rationality, and not surrender to a fashionable mania.

  7. 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?

    This harkens back to the old “bad tendency” test that used to be employed by the Supreme Court, under which speech that, left unchecked, would have the natural tendency to encourage unlawful behavior was unprotected by the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment. That test probably reached its apotheosis in Justice O.W. Holmes, Jr.’s opinion for the Court in Schenck v. United States (1919), upholding the sedition convictions of a group of Yiddish pamphleteers who had urged disobedience of the US conscription laws during World War I.

    A more enlightened Holmes — who’d had his consciousness regarding free speech raised through his interactions with fellow justice Louis Brandeis, Second Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Learned Hand (cool name for a judge, huh?), and a group of young Boston lawyers — did a one-eighty away from the “bad tendency” test the following term with his ringing dissent (joined by Brandeis) in Abrams v. United States (1919). See also Whitney v. California (1927), in which Justice Brandeis, while concurring in the result reached by the Court in the case, wrote a similarly ringing criticism of the First Amendment “bad tendency” standard.

    The Brandeis/Holmes view of the First Amendment’s Free Speech clause was eventually adopted by SCOTUS in a series of cases culminating in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), which set out the “imminent incitement to lawless action” standard that holds sway today.

  8. It’s hard not to suspect that the main reason words are equated with violence by the transgender community and its supporters — satirical words, skeptical words, blunt words, challenging words — is because so much of what the transgender identity is rests on words.

    There is no test for being transgender but the sincere (or insincere) word of the person involved. That “Transwomen are Women” and “Transmen are Men” appear to be mantras whose subjects all lack clear definition, but rely on the power of the words. And, like the consensus-building involved in the meaning of words, the lack of social validation destroys the existence of what apparently depends on it. When Alice in Wonderland said “Why, you’re nothing but a pack of cards,” the men and women vanished. She had decked them with her words.

    1. Interesting, Sastra – I think you’re right. The circularity of the TWAW mantra doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, hence the insistence on #NoDebate and the demonisation of anyone who challenges the “Acceptance without Exception” dogma.

  9. “.. after seeing a Chappelle special, was motivated to commit a hate crime against a trans person?”

    Then that person is an insane maniac. I cannot imagine the sort of tortured logic a person would have to use to connect Chappele’s jokes with calls for violence against anyone.
    I had a discussion about this with my trans kid. A big problem with trans folk is that they take themselves very, very seriously. Doing so is not good for your mental health or stability.

    How many trans people does it take to…

    I think that used to be a third wave feminist joke, but it applies.

    One of the trans people we see regularly here is a guy who has a hipster-style full beard and mustache. Exactly the type who uses special oils and waxes on his facial hair, and always has a special comb in his pocket for beard grooming. Except this guy always wears frilly dresses, in the Japanese gothic lolita fashion.
    Nobody is going to convince me that he is not trying to provoke a reaction.

    Chappele did ask hypothetically to what extent the rest of us are required to participate and support such people’s self image? My answer is that in normal public spaces, we just try our best to treat him like everyone else.
    Except that everyone else is subject to being found a source of amusement. I don’t even take myself all that seriously, so I don’t think it is reasonable to expect me to treat the bearded lolita guy with solemn reverence.

    What I think is likely to provoke violent reaction against trans folk is unreasonable demands. A good example of that is the demand to be allowed to change and shower with the regular girls after gym or team sports.
    The “funny” part of that situation is that Snopes found the existence of such claims false partly because they are not “boys” if they don’t identify as such, so nobody is letting boys into the showers, technically.

    1. And so Snopes topples. I liked them better back in the days of discarded pet alligators living in the New York City sewers, or the Puerto Rican gangs that drove around with their lights off, fixing to open fire on a driver who innocently flicked his high-beams to remind them.

      Remember how you could always tell when one of your elderly or rural relatives had just got the Internet because they forwarded these vital bits of information to everyone in their Inboxes.

  10. Speech isn’t violent in itself. Speech can incite violence, but only if the listener chooses to act as a result. 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), as Jerry says, is a different matter. That kind of speech is a crime.

    In a free society, we must be willing to tolerate—and even welcome—speech that we don’t like. If you don’t like it, there are all kinds of ways to express that dislike. Expressing dislike by committing violent acts (such as assaulting people) is not acceptable. Expressing dislike by canceling speakers is not acceptable either, for how does society progress without an honest debate of contrasting views? There is wide latitude for expression between these limits, and those who want our country to remain vibrant need to protect speech in all its forms. Debate and disagreement are signs of a healthy society.

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