David Oliver and Patrick Ryan, USA Today, October 18
Netflix purports to be a beacon for inclusion in front of and behind the camera. But the growing controversy over Dave Chappelle’s latest stand-up special, “The Closer,” proves it has much further to go.
In “Closer,” released on Oct. 5, Chappelle reacted to criticism he was punching down when making jokes about the trans community. He doubled down and expressed solidarity with “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling, who drew backlash after conflating sex with gender and defending ideas suggesting that changing one’s biological sex was a threat to her own gender identity.
Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos said in a staff memo this week that “content on screen doesn’t directly translate to real-world harm,” a fact negated by research revealed even in one of Netflix’s own documentaries, 2020’s “Disclosure,” which explores how trans people are impacted by negative representations in pop culture.
Do words directly cause harm?
According to a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, on-screen violence causes increased aggressive thoughts and behavior as well as decreased empathy in viewers. The same could be said of hate speech, whether it’s by politicians, celebrities or people you know.
“When people hear other people saying things that are hateful, for whatever reason and whatever group it’s aimed at, it gives them permission, basically, to think that’s true and to imitate that kind of speech,” says Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research.
Stand-up comedy has long been an art form characterized by its incisive, take-no-prisoners attitude. Comedians as varied as Sarah Silverman, Kevin Hart, Pete Davidson and Jerry Seinfeld have all landed in hot water for jokes that have been deemed insensitive to particular groups.
“When it’s a group that’s already vulnerable because they’re already discriminated against – maybe even by members of their own family, let alone others – those are the people who are going to be emotionally more harmed by it,” Zuckerman says. “I know some people get very upset about political correctness – ‘Can’t we joke about anything anymore? People shouldn’t be so sensitive’ – but it’s very different when you’re a member of a discriminated group.”
And even if it’s difficult to quantify whether words directly cause harm, “we shouldn’t celebrate it,” says Lanier Holt, an associate professor at Ohio State University studying the effects of media messages on audience’s perceptions of marginalized groups.
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