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Can Dave Chappelle's Comedy Lead to Violence?

There's little evidence that offensive media causes real-world harm.

Key points

  • Dave Chappelle's new Netflix special is as controversial as it is popular.
  • Some trans activists have accused the comedian of promoting violence toward trans people.
  • At present, there is little good evidence a show such as Chappelle's can provoke violence.
  • Promoting censorship could actually reduce public sympathy toward the community.

In the last week, there has been an explosion of debate regarding Dave Chappelle’s new comedy special, The Closer. In the show, the comedian fires barbs at the LGBT community and trans activism in general. Although The Closer has been a hit for its distributor, Netflix, many have been offended by the language, and some have accused the film of perpetuating violence against trans individuals and called for it to be pulled.

Exactly what qualifies as offensive is often subjective, and comedy frequently pushes the boundaries of acceptable discourse. I’ve seen The Closer and I both understand why some people are upset and worry worry about the proportionality of some of the claims made. I particularly worry that causal claims of harm can’t be supported by the available science, and that calls for censorship of the film may backfire.

First, it’s important to highlight that trans individuals, particularly in early years, are subject to higher rates of bullying, harassment and abuse, which can result in loneliness, depression, and suicidal thoughts. As such, concerns about stigmatization are reasonable. Whether this leads to more victims of homicide in the community during during adolescence or adulthood is less clear. Data suggests that homicide victimization rates for trans individuals are lower than for cisgendered individuals, although Latina and Black trans individuals experience higher levels of homicide than cisfemale individuals, but not cismales. Such data are not without controversy, but it’s important both to recognize a serious issue and to effectively communicate its nuances so as not to cause panic.

Is there evidence to suggest a comedy special such as Chappelle’s could increase violence rates? The good news is that there is not clear evidence linking entertainment media to violence in real life. Granted, most of this has come from study of fictional media, and initial panics about everything from aggression to mass shootings typically resolve with the acknowledgement that data never really supported the moral panic. Even professional guilds such as the American Psychological Association are sometimes caught out on a limb of promoting moral panic with bad science.

For news media the story is more nuanced. Cultivation Theory suggests that some of our beliefs can be formed by exposure to news. That’s particularly true if we have no other source of information or are particularly susceptible to the belief in the first place; for instance, crime victims being more likely to believe crime is rampant. Yet even evidence for news media effects have been maddeningly difficult to pin down.

Even for things like political propaganda, it can be uncertain whether effects drive history. Numerous claims of media effects, such as Jaws causing shark depopulation or Birth of a Nation reviving the KKK have either been debunked or found to be apocryphal.

Unfortunately, there’s little direct evidence for media like comedy specials, but the good news is that, though Chappele's show may be offensive, there’s little evidence to link it to the potential for increased violence. With that in mind, I worry that the calls to effectively ban the special are a strategic mistake.

Even were Netflix to voluntarily pull the film as a private company, I argue that this would amount to de facto censorship. Netflix hasn’t done so yet, though its response to critics has appeared to weaken, with CEO Ted Sarandos recently saying, “To be clear, storytelling has an impact in the real world…sometimes quite negative.” Even putting a content warning on the special, as some have suggested, could effectively chill further edgy comedy (which likely is the goal). And Netflix has a bad history of caving to pressure, such as censor-editing 13 Reasons Why even as evidence mounted that the show was not harmful. And censorship efforts remain widely unpopular. Promoting the health, dignity, and rights of trans individuals is a critical, worthwhile cause. Dying on the hill of promoting censorship will potentially backfire in reducing support among the general public.

Unfortunately, whether attempting to charge librarians for child abuse or burning books in Canada, we have seen aggressive censorship efforts from both right and left in recent years. Chappelle’s critics have every right to publish their critiques and should not be harassed or punished for expressing their opinions. But however worthy the underlying cause may be, we need to be careful not to frighten people with unsupportable claims of harm, and censorship is never the answer.

More from Christopher J. Ferguson Ph.D.
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