Dave Chappelle's new Netflix special and the myth of cancel culture

Our culture hasn’t shifted towards silencing people, because marginalised people have always been silenced. The shift is that they now have a voice, and parts of society are finally listening. And to those who have always enjoyed unquestioned power, that shift is terrifying.


“Louis CK was a very good friend of mine before he died in that terrible masturbation accident,” Dave Chappelle says during his new Netflix comedy special, Sticks & Stones. 

“He didn’t do anything you can call the police for. I dare you to try… They ruined this ni–a’s life, and now he’s coming back playing comedy clubs and they’re acting like if he’s able to do that that’s going to hurt women. What the fuck is your agenda, ladies?”

Chappelle’s latest comedy special is a deliberately offensive, intentionally “shocking” criticism of PC culture, which sees Chappelle use homophobic slurs, make targeted comments about women and trans people, and mock both child and adult survivors of sexual assault.

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Chappelle proudly declares “I’m what’s known on the streets as a victim-blamer,” accusing Michael Jackson’s victims as lying and saying “I’ve got a fucking #MeToo headache.”

Sticks & Stones

Chappelle’s special has garnered a lot of criticism, but of course he still has his defenders, as he always will. Stick & Stones is part of the comedian’s $60 million deal with Netflix. Despite Chappelle’s insistence that “this is the worst time ever to be a celebrity. You’re gonna be finished. Everyone’s doomed” – he is proving that offending a lot of people still turns a huge profit.

"Powerful men don’t get cancelled. They experience consequences. And most of them end up making a comeback."

This inherent contradiction is rampant through Chappelle’s criticism of cancel culture, not least when he defends his friend Louis CK, who was accused by several women of masturbating in front of them without their consent.

“They ruined this ni–a’s life, and now he’s coming back playing comedy clubs,” says Chappelle, apparently unaware that he’s just contradicted himself. People whose lives have been ruined don’t get to play comedy clubs, nor do they have one of the most famous comedians in the world defending them to millions of viewers.

The truth is, powerful men don’t get cancelled. They experience consequences. And most of them end up making a comeback.

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Offensive language

Cancel culture is broadly understood as the public criticism of and withdrawal of support from people who have demonstrated problematic, offensive or abusive attitudes or behaviour. Critics of cancel culture often argue that it’s based on faux outrage, virtue signalling, and the silencing of people who are not politically correct – or arrived at political correctness too late.  It’s also often portrayed as being the deliberate and organised attempt of an oversensitive, bloodthirsty, mob to permanently derail the careers of celebrities; an idea that Chappelle is perpetuating with this question of “What’s your agenda, ladies?”

"Cancel culture is broadly understood as the public criticism of and withdrawal of support from people who have demonstrated problematic, offensive or abusive attitudes or behaviour."

But this painting of cancel culture as one collective mass undermines each individual affected by the issues they’re speaking out against. And the idea that cancel culture is about silencing people just shows who dominant culture sees as having a right to a voice. It’s not that bigoted ideas, offensive language and sexual harassment were always fine and now everyone is just offended too easily. Marginalised people have been offended, been affected, been harmed - but were justifiably too scared to speak up.

Our culture hasn’t shifted towards silencing people, because marginalised people have always been silenced. The shift is that they now have a voice, and parts of society are finally listening. And to those who have always enjoyed unquestioned power, that shift is terrifying.

It’s no surprise it’s mainly powerful men who are complaining about cancel culture. Men who see being famous, wealthy or having a platform as a right, not a privilege. Men who feel entitled to never face criticism or consequences. Men who feel entitled to power, and outraged at the idea that they might lose it.

Mel Gibson

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The sad reality is, of course, that these men probably won’t lose their power. It may be diminished; it may be slightly more difficult to make the next million than it was to make the first. But male power has proven itself to be far more resilient than critics of cancel culture care to admit.

Mel Gibson was caught in multiple recordings using the ‘N’ word, being ant-Semitic, threatening his ex-wife with violence, telling her if she was raped it would be her fault, and was investigated for domestic violence. Gibson didn’t appear onscreen for six years. But he has now returned to Hollywood, directed a film that won two Oscars, has been welcomed onto red carpets and chat shows (including Ireland’s Late Late Show), is slated to appear in four films over the next 18 months, and is directing another film.

Louis CK

Louis CK, who admitted to exposing himself and masturbating in front of several women, is – as Chappelle notes – still playing comedy clubs, and is worth $35 million. Aziz Ansari, accused of pressuring a woman into sexual acts, has a new comedy special on Netflix. Liam Neeson, who admitted to wandering around London wanting to kill a Black man has appeared in two films since those comments, and has six more films on the way.

Emile Hirsch, who strangled a female studio executive until she was unconscious in 2015, is currently on cinema screens in both Tarantino film and an Irish Western. Casey Affleck is still making films, Chris Brown is still making music, Logan Paul is still making videos – even Woody Allen’s latest film A Rainy Day In New York is currently winding its way to release in some European countries.

“Cancel culture hasn’t successfully cancelled any powerful men. What it has done is created consequences for some."

And let’s not forget that Donald Trump, an openly racist misogynist who was caught on tape admitting to sexual assault, was voted as leader of the free world.

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Indeed, “cancel culture” hasn’t successfully cancelled any powerful men. What it has done is created consequences for some. It has raised questions, it has asked for apologies, it has demanded accountability. It’s not cancel culture – it’s consequence culture. And what its critics are highlighting is their sense of entitlement to act without consequences.

Who really gets silenced

The irony is, of course, that some people really have been cancelled. Some careers have been destroyed. Some lives really have been ruined. But it’s not the comedians, actors and filmmakers still appearing on our television screens and making millions.

It’s the female comedians who tried to speak out about Louis CK for years, and were blacklisted.

It’s the rape survivors who never even spoke out about their experience, knowing that the world is filled with people like Chappelle, who proudly call themselves “a victim-blamer.”

It’s the gay people who have had the f-word that Chappelle brandishes used against them all their lives.

"Making jokes at the expense of marginalised people, supporting men who have abused women, mocking victims of oppression... isn’t rebellion."

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It’s the 26 trans people killed in hate-crimes in the USA in 2018, whose friends and family now have to hear Chappelle not only make transphobic jokes, but also complain that it’s his multi-millionaire comedian friend whose life has been ruined.

And the other irony is that Chappelle, like most critics of cancel culture, believes that he’s being brave by speaking out, that he’s a maverick, a rebel. But making jokes at the expense of marginalised people, supporting men who have abused women, mocking victims of oppression, and feeling entitled to unquestioned power and privilege – this isn’t rebellion. This is the status quo.

And all Chappelle and his many fans are proving is that they’re deeply invested in remaining at the top – no matter who they have silence.


Read more: How society is undermining a queer woman's sexuality

Read more: A masterclass in slut shaming

Read more:Dating culture and rape culture

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